Virtual reality is unlocking new healthcare opportunities

Ben Taylor
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Virtual reality isn’t for everybody, and it’s certainly not suitable for every situation. There’s nothing worse than using tech for tech’s sake and shoe horning a piece of VR in where it’s not needed. It doesn’t add any value and subsequently falls very flat.

However, there are certain conditions that are ripe for this type of technology, and many areas of healthcare fit the bill. Virtual reality is perfect for communicating complicated messages, consolidating vast amounts of information into small, bite-sized and memorable chunks, and immersing users in new environments.

To understand the true power of virtual reality you need to try it for yourself. The total immersion in a 360-degree environment, combined with sound effects, will trick your subconscious brain into thinking it’s somewhere else. Standing on top of a 30-story building in our ‘virtual heights experience’ is enough to make people scream. Despite knowing you are physically standing on the floor the visual effects are so immersive they will trigger a sense of vertigo. In this instance the technology can be used extremely effectively to treat a range of phobias, through incremental exposure in a safe environment.

At the more extreme end of the scale, the technology has proven to be so immersive that burn victims have experienced a 50% pain reduction after being placed in a virtual cold environment for 20 minutes. SnowWorld was the first virtual world designed to help alleviate the excruciating pain levels suffered during wound care procedures – opioids alone just weren’t doing the job, particularly disturbing when the patients are children.

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We’re only just scratching the surface with using virtual reality for patients, but already there are cases where it’s been used for phantom limb treatment, PTSD and autism. In a recent case, VR was used to help children overcome the fear of receiving a vaccine injection. In the VR game, children were transformed into a heroic figure, about to receive a powerful shield. Actions in the game carefully matched those in the real world, reducing any fear or anxiety, and allowing a nurse to administer an injection with minimal disruption.

While patient treatment is a fantastic use of VR, so too is patient education. Healthcare practitioners often have to convey very complicated topics to patients – on procedures, a condition or the drug they’re administering. These messages can sometimes be a scary moment and VR can be used to clearly communicate the most important points, visually demonstrating an operation or how a drug will work. Our ‘heart experience’ transports users to a museum-like space where they can view an anatomically correct beating heart. The user can walk around and step inside the 2m high heart, see the clapping valves, and understand how the condition atrial fibrillation affects blood flow. This type of experience demystifies the medical process while giving important insight into how the body functions and, in this case, the importance of treatment via medication.

To understand the true power of virtual reality you need to try it for yourself

With the estimated market for VR in healthcare expected to hit £3.9bn by 2025, we’re bound to see more innovative uses of this technology over the coming years. From patient treatment to remote surgery or wellness experiences, the rapid advance in hardware technology will open up new areas previously inhibited by cost. Get ready for an impact on a mass scale.