A common misconception regarding virtual reality technology in healthcare is that it's a newer advancement in technological development. Implementing it into medical schools and hospitals has only recently happened in the last decade or so. That couldn't be further than the truth. This school of thought is so widespread because the technology has only gained mainstream recognition in the last decade.
Since the first VR headset was made available to the public in the earlier part of the decade, more people are recognizing the fact that XR technology has been around for a long time. In fact, virtual reality has been un use in the healthcare industry since the early 90s, in the form of exposure therapy and a surgical tool used to plan tricky operations. What makes virtual reality such a valuable tool? To answer this question, here are five key articles that discuss the benefits of virtual reality in healthcare.
What is Virtual Reality?
Virtual reality is a type of extended reality technology in which a participant wears a head mounted display (HMD) to immerse themselves in a digital environment. It renders 2D digital imaging into 3D interactive models and diagrams. Virtual reality is often conflated with augmented reality, which is similar, but only in that it is an extension of the digital world. The key differences between virtual and augmented reality are that:
- Augmented reality enhances the physical world with audio, visuals, and text, whereas virtual reality eliminates the physical world entirely with virtual environments
- Virtual reality needs an HMD as well as sometimes separate processors and sensors, but augmented reality has everything the user needs in one neat little package (personal smart device)
- Virtual reality utilizes a completely fictional space, and augmented reality interacts with the real world
Virtual reality enables users to experience things in a more lifelike manner than if they had without. To confuse it even more, there are even separate levels of virtual reality related to their immersion (non-immersive, semi-immersive, and fully immersive). However, there is a definitive line drawn between the two, and that is their relativity to the physical world. In short, augmented reality is virtual on physical, virtual reality is virtual on virtual.
How Does Virtual Reality Help Healthcare Professionals?
Virtual reality in healthcare has a decades long history with multiple benefits. Given the immersive nature of VR technology, it can give students and edge in studying for exams and residency by helping them focus for more efficient periods of time. Patient care is vastly improved by its use. 3D imaging of select body parts and their ailments give patients a better understanding of their medical condition, possible treatments plans, and recovery process. Combine this with the hypnosis-like simulations that virtual reality offers, it can be an effective pain management method for many patients.
Let's be honest, nobody wants to be a new surgeon's first official surgery case. Somebody must take that role, but still, nobody wants to. Students can gain the practice needed with lifelike simulations in virtual reality and perform various surgeries under different stress conditions to learn how to a) do the proper procedure, and b) learn what can go wrong, and tackle the situation in a low-risk environment.
Virtual reality can also cut down costs associated with common healthcare mishaps. For instance, nurses and other hospital staff can practice standard operating procedure within a virtual environment to eliminate risks. Virtual Reality Training (VRT) is one effective way to train employees on the various duties associated with the job. As a result, mistakes are lessened, work injuries are significantly reduced, and lawsuits are rendered unnecessary (most of the time).
5 Articles on Virtual Healthcare History
Virtual reality in healthcare can be dated, again, to the early 90s, in which patients underwent a more extreme form of exposure therapy using virtual reality. Exposure therapy is commonly in use to help patients overcome experiential trauma responses included in post-traumatic stress disorders. This includes binge eating, anxiety attacks, and flashbacks. Exposure therapy is also helpful in helping patients with phobias. For more specific information on these and other subjects, here is a list of five articles and studies done on VR for healthcare use.
1. In April 1996, an article appeared in IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Magazine detailing a brief evolution of virtual reality in medicine. In it, the authors discuss possible use cases, as well as ways virtual reality had already been applied. They also refer to the prevention and treatment procedures using virtual reality in diagnostic care, noting that the best treatment for disease is prevention. (Source)
2. A literature review posted on Science Direct gives a more specific history of XR technology in neurosurgery. The review, titled "History of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality in Neurosurgical Training" discusses the promising aspects of the technology in educational institutions and residency programs, stating that neurosurgeons have always been early adopters of innovative technology tools "such as bipolar cautery in the 1920s... and the operating microscope in the 1950s." (Source)
3. A study done in 1999 on the effects of virtual reality exposure therapy showed how VRT helped eliminate the situational anxiety for one Vietnam Veteran and helped him manage his PTSD symptoms. Both short term and long-term results were recorded, and over time this vet reported that he almost never thought about the event that caused his PTSD symptoms in the first place. While only one person was used in this study, it still shows the good that can come from the use of VR in a multitude of situations. (Source)
4. A more recent article published in May 2011 titled "Virtual Reality Goes to War: A Brief Overview of the Future of Military Behavioral Healthcare" discusses similar benefits to the post traumatic health of veterans. It discusses in more detail how modern applications are being implemented across the entire deployment cycle. It shows the practical use of VR in both managing and preventing PTSD in service members. (Source)
5. As for how virtual reality is being used actively in hospitals, we need look no further than the Microsoft Hololens and the impact it has had on patient care, cost associated with training, and the effective running of a hospital. The article was published in November 2021 and is titled "The Total Economic Impact of Mixed Reality using Microsoft Hololens 2." This article details more than just healthcare, however, the impact of virtual reality in hospitals was incredibly positive, recording a 30% reduction in training time, and 75% reduction in personal protective equipment. The financial benefits of using virtual reality for these areas of healthcare ensure that those funds can be directed into better areas of use. (Source)
Virtual reality is an immersive digital technology capable of giving users an experience they've never had before. By no means a new technology, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals have been looking into how they can utilize VR technology to their advantage. Virtual reality has the ability to teach new concepts, give real time training in new areas of skill development, and manage patient care in revolutionary ways; ways that were first set up by Joseph Lister, a British surgeon who completely changed patient care and the survivor rate with his discoveries on germ theory. History (and the advancements that come from it) is apt to repeat itself. In the same way that Lister's accomplishments made hospital life exponentially better for surgeons and patients, virtual reality will make modern hospitals even better.