Virtual reality in healthcare is expanding into new areas of development and use. As users have noticed the benefits of VR technology, the response they’ve given to developers is one of positive acceptance and the desire for more. Doctors are using the technology to treat patients. Mental health professionals are using VR to help reduce anxiety. Physical therapists are using virtual reality to give better patient outcomes and better in home therapy. Medical professionals and patients alike can see definitive improvements in the healthcare system as implementation of virtual reality in medicine becomes a higher priority.
The truth is that virtual reality in medicine and surgery has created a better system of management for everybody involve. In 2016, Dr Shafi Ahmed performed the first virtual reality surgery to remove cancerous tissue from a recently diagnosed patient’s bowel. The operation was live streamed to viewers around the world. (Read more about the day from a spectator here.) And this isn’t just a onetime thing. Users all over the world are benefiting from virtual reality as a treatment option, leading virtual reality to be the next big thing in medicine. But the next big thing isn’t a hope for the far distant future. The next big thing… is here.
Here are some other ways virtual reality is being used in medicine.
7 Uses for VR in Medicine
Let’s start at the beginning. Students of medicine are receiving a better, more in depth education due to virtual reality simulations. Within these simulations students experience and internalize textbook work at a faster rate of speed. The VR simulations can show very granular information and they can see very specifically what makes certain body parts work, what makes them stop, and so on. For instance, students can shrink down to the size of a cell, and see the individual layers of skin on a body.
Students of medicine that have applied the technology to supplement their education have a more in depth understanding of the human body due to the nature of rapid and intense information relay. The gamification of critical information helps with focus and learning drive.
Surgical training is arguably the most beneficial place to adopt VR practices. Just a few steps in the ladder away from a student of medicine, training surgeons have little to no experience. The lowest risk setting they’re given that helps them gain a better understanding of bodily structures is the dissection of cadavers, and they’re already dead so the risk is pretty minimal.
With virtual reality, training surgeons can practice procedural technique and life saving practices in a low-risk/high reward setting. Being able to have practical application practice in this way lowers risk to the patient, because they surgeon will have already had experience with the procedure before having their skills put to the test.
Read about how Oculus has implemented virtual reality in surgical training here.
In a similar way, virtual reality lends its support to surgery while actively attending to the patient. Having an overlay of images- such as tumor position, x-rays, etc.- onto the patient while in surgery, the surgeon can see and interact with vital information regarding the status of the patient, leading to better outcomes.
Using the example from earlier, surgeons can use imaging taken of the patient’s issues, say a tumor to be extracted, and expand the tumor to see very specific information within the image. This would enable them to see very specifically where to cut and how to avoid any unnecessary damage.
While VR adoption during the pandemic was attributed mostly to gaming, education, and employment, virtual reality came in handy when mitigating many of the healthcare challenges seen throughout the last three years. Virtual reality is uniquely adapted to help with emergency situations.
When the 2020 Pandemic became an issue and stay at home orders were put into place patients couldn’t go into hospitals unless it was an emergency. Virtual reality adapted to the situation and helped with virtual appointments that still allowed for the doctor to see representations of patient symptoms. Virtual reality can also help mitigate the issues with spreadability of diseases because doctors can see patients without the patient going into the hospital and potentially infecting others.
Patients often opt for non-medicinal pain management options. Others are affected by pain medication to a lesser degree (if anesthesia or other numbing agents work at all), and need other options to manage pain. These can include anything from meditation to acupuncture and breathing exercises. While in most cases virtual reality isn’t a cure all, especially for high intensity situations, patients can still opt for a reduction in medicinal pain managements with VR implementation.
Virtual reality can help manage pain symptoms in physical therapy, childbirth, and outpatient procedures, to name a few, by immersing patients in a calming simulation. These simulations are designed with immersion and focus in mind, to take the patient away from their current situation mentally so the pain of whatever they’re experiencing isn’t so sharp.
Addiction to opioids plays a huge part in the desire for non-medicinal pain management. Those with an already addictive personality who find themselves in need of internal pain management have a hard time eliminating opioids from use when the need for them has ended. Virtual reality offers an alternative to ever starting them in the first place.
The neurological pathways in stroke, dementia, and Alzheimer’s patients are degenerated and broken down by time. While virtual reality can’t necessarily fix the problem, it can help rebuild these pathways and help improve brain function. With immersive activities designed with brain health and memory in mind, virtual reality can help assist with fine motor recovery and rehabilitation.
Virtual reality works especially well with brain degeneration because of its ability to receive information and internalize it before projecting information to the user. VR can assess neurological deficits, increase levels of interaction between patient and environment, and help users retrain impaired skills with repetition.
Mental Health Improvement
Virtual reality as a tool for better mental health is an older use case for the technology. In the early 90s, studies were done on the efficiency of immersion therapy for PTSD. As VR has proven its capabilities in this field, it has become more prominent among mental health professionals. Now, soldiers take immersive walks on treadmills that show specific simulations detailing trigger situations. These situations have helped soldiers eliminate negative reactions to situational trauma, enabling them to have more positive social interactions.
This is just one example of how virtual reality has helped with mental health disorders. VR technology works well with exposure therapy of all types, and helps patients explore situations and understand their own trauma to live a better, more fulfilled life.
Virtual reality is taking standard medical practices and elevating them to be more patient friendly, elevate patient surgical outcomes, and develop systems that create better equity within the healthcare industry. When first developed, the technology had been uniquely placed within a training environment with detailed landscapes and simulations that offered a greater depth of understanding. Not necessarily for healthcare, mind. However, the initial capabilities of the technology enabled it to seamlessly become a positive contributor to the medical field. Now, with the knowledge that virtual reality is a valuable component in healthcare, developments have been made with the technology in mind and future developments will give rise to even better outcomes.