Virtual reality is a rising star, but what good is it? In healthcare, plenty

Tue, 2017-04-04 06:00 -- Compassionate C...

IDC predicts growth in the virtual reality headset market will occur at a breakneck pace in the next few years, thanks to new device launches, lower price points and an expanding array of content. But it's not all about gaming and entertainment. VR has a compelling upside in the healthcare industry, as you'll read below. – Philip Bane

On its Virtual Reality 101 site, CNET describes VR this way: "Virtual reality is a computer-generated environment that lets you experience a different reality. A VR headset fits around your head and over your eyes, and visually separates you from whatever space you're physically occupying. Images are fed to your eyes from two small lenses. Through VR you can virtually hike the Grand Canyon, tour the Louvre, experience a movie as if you are part of it, and immerse yourself in a video game without leaving your couch."

But that's just a start. Increasingly we're seeing applications of VR that go beyond the gaming and entertainment sphere, moving to classrooms and college tours, real estate and tourism. The recent IDC forecast suggests that for enterprise users, the big beneficiaries of growth in VR between now and 2021 will likely be manufacturing and design, retail, transportation and healthcare.  

And in fact we're already seeing some fascinating work using VR in healthcare.

Reducing suffering
At the Medical Virtual Reality Lab at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, VR is helping veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The therapy that has vets going back and confronting the emotional memories around their trauma isn't easy, Dr. Skip Rizzo tells KXAN. But the psychologist says it is effective.

“There’s no doubt this is very challenging therapy," Dr. Rizzo says, "but as you go through that repeatedly, you start to see a decline in the activating anxiety. And all of a sudden patients are feeling empowered."

Burn victims are also finding pain relief with virtual reality.

"VR is better at getting rid of pain more than morphine is," suggests futurist and VR consultant Robert Scoble. "So if you can solve a burn victim's pain with VR better than with drugs, that's a pretty exciting thing."

A Cisco report highlights work being done at Cedar-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, where burn patients wearing headsets virtually explore the topography of Iceland and swim with dolphins.

"It distracts your brain because VR makes you think you're actually having that experience," says Scoble.

Virtual heart and brave heart
At the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford in the heart of Silicon Valley, medical professionals are collaborating with VR experts and area tech companies to leverage VR as a vital tool for healthcare providers and their patients. Among them:

  • The Stanford Virtual Heart: Pediatric cardiologists at the hospital are using immersive VR technology to explain complex congenital heart defects, which they say are some of the most difficult medical conditions for patients and their families to grasp.

“The heart is a complicated three-dimensional organ, and it’s really hard to describe what’s going on inside of it -- especially when something is going wrong,” explains David M. Axelrod, MD, who has led the design of the program. “Virtual reality eliminates a lot of that complexity by letting people go inside the heart and see what’s happening themselves -- it’s worth way more than a thousand words.”

  • Project Brave Heart: A new study is being conducted on the use of a VR program for “stress inoculation therapy,” which aims to help young patients mitigate anxiety through cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, including relaxation and exposure.

By preparing children and adolescents for their hospital experience in advance, the Project Brave Heart program’s intent is to reduce stress and anxiety -- and possibly the need for sedative medications -- prior to their procedure.

Repairing damaged limbs
A study in Israel is finding that virtual reality training could help improve the mobility and motor skills of an impaired hand by letting the patient's other hand "lead by example."

Physical therapy, according to a report on the site, is usually the treatment in cases of hemiparesis, a condition of weakness or paralysis in one of two paired limbs.

"But this therapy is challenging, exhausting and usually has a fairly limited effect,” Prof. Roy Mukamel of Tel Aviv University, who led the research, said in a statement. “Our results suggest that training with a healthy hand through a virtual reality intervention provides a promising way to repair mobility and motor skills in an impaired limb."

The researchers are also exploring how their VR training method could apply to stroke patients.

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This article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our weekly newsletter.

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