This article is written by Elinext’s Healthcare IT Consultant, Victoria Yaskevich, who carefully collected the most exciting medical VR use-cases to provide you with a clear insight into this promising MedTech trend.
Enjoy your reading.
For hundreds of years, medical students have been tortured cadavers to learn more about the internals of the human body. Nowadays a new trend came – virtual reality apps for medical training and education. Just put on a headset with the relevant program – and your teacher will guide you through a lesson on a virtual human subject.
It was April 2016 when the first operation using VR camera was performed. Shafi Ahmed, a cancer surgeon, held it at the Royal London hospital. Saying that it was a huge step in surgery is saying nothing. Everyone could participate in the operation in real-time through the Medical Realities website and the VR in OR-app. No matter whether you are a promising medical student, an interested journalist or a worried relative, you could still follow through two 360-degree cameras on how the surgeon removes a cancerous tissue from the bowel of the patient.
Medical education, surgery, rehabilitation program, psychiatry, and psychology – these are some of the areas to benefit from medical VR. As a doctor, you could assist in the operating room (OR) without ever lifting a scalpel or prepare for complex surgeries efficiently. As a medical student, you could study the human body more closely and get ready for real-life operations.
However, patients would benefit the most. Virtual reality could help them tackle chronic pain, fight with fears and phobias, distract from pain of childbirth and vaccination. One could not only go through the rehabilitation process faster and easier but also escape from the hospital environment into a virtual wonderland or a peaceful place.
And perhaps the most successful application of VR so far is a stress release and pain reduction for patients suffering from chronic pain. For example, there is a VR game called Farmoo. It is intended to help teen cancer patients get distracted during chemotherapy and focus more on the activities inside the game, rather than the treatment itself.
Researchers at the University of Washington showed that a 40-year-old patient with burns on over 19% of his body benefited greatly from the combination of hydrotherapy and VR usage. They even developed a Pixar-like app with a relaxing snow scene together with Firsthand Technology to help him alleviate the pain felt during wound care.
Medical VR entirely breaks the conventional belief that technology makes healthcare less human, less empathetic and less caring. I tried to gather some evidence of that (hey, grumpy pessimists!). Feel free to supplement my list if I missed anything!
1) Teaching empathy to medical students
No matter how virtuoso you are in an operating theatre, one of the most challenging parts of being a doctor is mastering a patient-doctor communication.
Delivering tough news about the death of a patient or about his cancer diagnosis requires enormous strength of mind and empathy as well as an appropriate practice: lots of practice. That is where VR comes into play. Researchers from Medical Cyberworlds Inc. and the University of Michigan made an experiment where medical students were armed with Mpathic-VR technology to talk with emotive, computer-based virtual humans who can see, hear and react to them in real-time. The virtual humans used a full range of behaviors expected of two people talking to each other. Applying this technique in future curriculums, medical students practiced difficult conversations before going out and experiencing them in real life.
2) Helping physicians experience life as an elderly
How does it feel to be old? How does it feel not to be able to lift your hand, lose your sharp eyesight, or recover from a heart attack?
Embodied Labs created “We Are Alfred” with the help of VR to show young medical students what ageing means. Everyone can be the hypothetical Alfred for 7 minutes, and experience how it feels to live like a 74-year-old man with audio-visual dysfunctions.
The ultimate goal is to mitigate the disconnection between young doctors and elderly patients due to their huge age difference. Fostering empathy is much easier when physicians can feel themselves in patients’ shoes.
3) Making dying patients’ last wishes come true
Greg always wanted to go to Africa, see the Northern Lights, and experience scuba-diving, but his sudden disease gave it all up for lost. To help Greg and other palliative care patients, David Parker, an IT consultant from Toronto, uses the power of virtual reality. He lets bedridden patients get out of their beds virtually and travel around the world, crossing items off their bucket list. As a result, Bridgepoint Health and Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto has already introduced VR headsets in their palliative care programmers. Some patients “traveled” more than once and keep going back for the experience.
4) Tackling depression and pain in hospitalized patients
If you’ve ever been hospitalized or visited someone in a hospital, you might know that lying in a room for days or weeks, often in pain and distress, can be physically demanding, emotionally draining, and socially isolating. In many ways, a hospital room can be more like a bio-psycho-social jail than an uplifting healing environment. So virtual reality might be a great tool to escape the scary hospital environment without physically going anywhere or to mitigate chronic pain without painkillers.
In 2017, Dr. Brennan M. Spiegel and his research team at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center have made an experiment and concluded that VR could go beyond the entertainment industry and step into healthcare! They enrolled 100 patients suffering from gastrointestinal, cardiac, neurological and post-surgical pain. Fifty patients received virtual reality therapy consisting of watching calming video content such as helicopter rides over scenic portions of Iceland, or imagery of swimming in the ocean with whales. Those patients reported a 24 percent drop in pain scores after using the virtual reality goggles.
Another 50 patients viewed a standard, two-dimensional nature video, depicting relaxing scenes with a calming music audio track, on a close-proximity screen. Although those patients also experienced a reduction in pain, the decrease of 13.2 percent was less dramatic.
Spiegel says that not only the hospital experience can be improved with medical VR, but the costs of care may also be cut. By reducing stress and pain, the length of the patient’s stay in the ward or the amount of resources utilized can both be decreased.
However, not everyone is willing to try it out, especially when it comes to older patients. In their first study, published in JMIR Mental Health, Spiegel and the team found that the average age of patients willing to try VR was 49.7 years old, whereas those unwilling to try it was 60.2 years old on average. This is consistent with the known “digital divide” between generations, which describes the difference in comfort and familiarity of using digital technologies.
5) Making children feel like they’re at home
The experience of being in a hospital is even more stressful and mentally burdening for children who miss their parents, their friends, their toys, their favorite blanket and, in general, their home.
Thus, a Dutch company made their stay at hospitals less stressful. Through a smartphone and virtual glasses, VisitU makes live contact with a 360-degree camera at the patient’s home, school or special occasions such as a birthday celebration or a football game. Though hospitalized, young patients can relax and still enjoy their lives.