Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, I’m sure you’ve heard about and even experienced Virtual Reality. Headsets are becoming commonplace in the average household, yet, if you think VR is just about gaming, then you’re sorely mistaken. From Product Design to Architecture, courtrooms to classrooms, a wide variety of industries have adopted Virtual Reality into their day-to-day responsibilities. Yet, there’s one industry where the benefits of virtual reality are superior.
Since the 90’s, the medical industry has been using VR and 3D visualisation for training and practical purposes. With advances in technology helping to make simulated images more realistic and at a faster and cheaper rate, we’re now seeing VR being used for treating patients with both mental and physical ailments.
Virtual Reality’s uses in Teaching & Training
Scientists in the healthcare industry have been researching and perfecting ways to develop and implement virtual reality in ways that can help them train, diagnose and treat a number of situations as well as providing simulators that allow surgeons to practise without any risk to real patients.
According to the Lancet Commission on global surgery, 28-32% of the global burden of disease can be attributed to surgically treatable conditions. So why are fatality rates so high for conditions that can easily be treated? Although there are many factors that contribute to this answer, one point to touch upon is the size of the medical workforce.
Learning and training to become a healthcare professional is not only time consuming, but also incredibly expensive. In developing countries, where colleges and universities are hard to come by, there’s a notable correlation between the dwindling numbers of doctors and surgeons. But, Dr Shafi Ahmed, the co-founder of virtual medics and medical realities, hopes to change this. He envisions a world, where thousands of surgeons can be trained simultaneously with Virtual Reality. Making his visions a reality back in 2014, Dr Ahmed was able to reach 14,000 surgeons across 100 different countries by using Google Glass to stream a surgical training session.
Virtual Reality is a powerful new teaching tool that pushes the boundaries, reaching prospective students beyond the classroom. Not only that, but it provides students with the opportunity to immerse themselves in realistic situations and practice the steps and techniques in real time. Which, in my opinion, is a much better way to learn than watching a video and watching an expert in a crowded room.
As well as being used as a teaching tool, Virtual Reality can also be used as a training tool for healthcare professionals, allowing them to practice surgery techniques without any risk of harming real-life patients. Using CT scans, ultrasounds and MRI scans of their patients, they can create surgery simulators to create a virtual model of the body. These virtual patients can then be used to identify any potential pitfalls and plan how they could be avoided during surgery.
Treating Physical and Mental ailments with Virtual Reality
If doctors are using VR, it only makes sense that their patients do too.
Virtual Reality is being used to treat patients with mental health issues, like depression and PTSD, by providing an therapy in an immersive and controlled setting to address, confront and control their emotions. Clinics and hospitals are using VR simulators to help veterans deal with instances that could otherwise be triggers of destructive behaviour.
A recent study conducted by UCL, saw positive improvements in patients when using VR as a therapy technique. The study saw patients wearing a VR headset, allowing them to embody a life-size avatar, which mimicked their movements. They then had to express compassion through gestures and words to a crying child. After the virtual child stopped crying, the patient then became the child and heard back their words of compassion. The results? After one month, 9/15 patients reported reduced depressive symptoms, of whom 4 experienced a significant drop in the severity of their depression.
Meditation has recently become a popular technique for managing depression and general anxiety, and Oculus Rift has created a new VR app to help them learn the right techniques. The app, called DEEP, uses a band worn around the chest to measure the users breathing, while their meditative breaths control their immersive environment.
Virtual Reality can also provide therapeutic environments to allow patients to take the focus of their discomfort associated with medical problems and treatments. Virtual Reality has been shown to reduce anxiety in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy as well as making medical procedures less distressing to children.
Again, patients suffering from severe burns also benefit from using Virtual Reality. A VR game “SnowWorld” is being used to distract burn patients from pain. The game works by using Virtual Reality to overwhelm the senses and pain pathways in the brain. The results? Patients who play the game during treatment reported 50% less pain compared to those who didn’t.
Social Cognition Training for Autism
A social cognition training program has been created by professors at the University of Texas, with the aim to help young adults with autism work on social skills. The program transported the children into situations like job interviews or dates using avatars and taught them how to read social cues and express “socially acceptable” behaviour.
Virtual Reality provides patients with phobias the opportunity to face their fears and practice coping strategies all while in a safe and controlled setting. Using exposure therapy, patients are slowly introduced to their fear (think spiders and heights) in order to break patterns of avoidance.
VR can be used to track body movements, providing patients undergoing physical therapy a fun way to use their body but also overcome any pain anxiety. An example of this is found in patients who are anxious about walking again. VR shows them a slowed down virtual environment, to which patients respond by speeding up their walking without even realising. Another way in which Virtual Reality can help patients with physical ailments is with Amputees suffering from Phantom limb pain. The technique called “virtual mirror therapy” allows patients to control a virtual version of the absent limb, helping them to better control their pain.
Although VR shouldn’t be considered a replacement for pain-killing medication, combining drugs and VR could be groundbreaking. Virtual Reality systems in the home will eventually be low-cost and accessible for a large majority of the world population. This means that VR therapy could potentially become a part of every home and be used on a widespread basis. With constant advances in technology and large tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Oculus VR backing the market – it’s safe to say Virtual Reality already has and will continue to transform the medical industry.