The healthcare sector has been interested in virtual reality for some time, but only recently have the technology and costs gotten to a place that allows for widespread use in the field.
Virtual reality technology enables users to feel immersed in three-dimensional, computer-generated environments. These environments react to the movements of the user, making them feel real. Some technologies enable the user to manipulate the virtual world in various realistic ways.
Virtual reality, or VR, is often associated with games, but it also has many practical uses across many different industries. Healthcare is one sector that VR is helping to transform, as the technology has potential applications for medical professionals, students and patients. Virtual reality is becoming increasingly common in the healthcare space.
Virtual reality already has many uses in medicine, and many more are being innovated as the associated technologies improve. Here are 10 of the most prominent ways virtual reality is improving healthcare.
Surgeons and their teams are using virtual reality to help plan complex operations. VR technology enables them to walk through the surgery beforehand and even rehearse it entirely, minimizing the number of surprises they encounter and making the procedures safer for the patient.
Using CT, MRI and ultrasound scans, you can create detailed virtual models of patients’ bodies, which you can use to plan and practice a specific operation. Surgeons can explore these virtual models using a combination of virtual reality and haptic robots, which feel like a real patient, to rehearse a surgery in a 3D environment. They can also use a technology similar to a flight simulator to see the body on which they will perform surgery and practice the operation.
VR recently helped doctors at the Masonic Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis complete an especially complicated operation to separate conjoined twins. The surgical team used VR to look inside the patients’ organs, identify potential challenges and create a plan for the procedure.
Other potential benefits of VR in surgery include use during operations and post-operative review as well as for helping medical students practices procedures before they do them with patients.
VR is also playing a growing role in the treatment of mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and phobias. VR has been used since 1997 to treat soldiers with PTSD, but today the technology is more advanced and possibly more effective.
PTSD can be a debilitating condition and has proven to be challenging to treat, but recent studies suggest that using VR could be an effective treatment approach. Under the direction of a trained clinician, the patient is gradually exposed to the stimuli that trigger the reaction, potentially helping them to recover more quickly.
This progressive exposure technique is a common PTSD treatment, but the sensory experience that VR enables may make it more powerful. VR may be used in combination with medications, other kinds of therapy and other treatments.
You can use a similar approach to treat phobias. Gradual exposure to the object of the fear in virtual environments may help relieve the phobia in real life.
Virtual reality could also play a role in pain management and help people tolerate medical procedures. This area is still being researched, but the results so far are promising. It could be especially useful for patients for whom anesthesia and sedation could be dangerous. It could also be used in combination with pain medications but may be able to reduce opiate use.
When used for pain management, VR immerses patients in virtual worlds to take their focus off of their pain. This may involve peaceful environments or games. These VR games may simply serve as a distraction and could also incorporate movements required for physical therapy.
VR could be useful for patients experiencing chronic pain as well as for dealing with pain post-surgery, for treating the pain associated with the daily cleaning and bandaging of severe burns and for making injections less upsetting for children.
Tests of one VR game found that burn patients who played the game reported 35 to 50 percent less pain during treatment, and brain scans showed reductions in pain-related brain activity.
Patients recovering from strokes or head injuries may also benefit from virtual reality in the medical field. VR environments can help patients overcome challenges related to balance and mobility. After practicing in virtual environments, patients may be more confident when moving around in the real world.
With VR, a physical therapist can control the patient’s environment and measure the impact it has on their balance and mobility. They can gradually expose them to more challenging conditions and give them feedback about how to respond.
VR games designed to stimulate the parts of the brain damaged by a stroke may help stroke patients in their recovery. Using 3D motion-tracking cameras, medical professionals can map patient’s movements while they play the games.
Although research into these methods is still needed, early studies had promising results related to using VR in therapy for improving arm and hand mobility, for patients with cerebral palsy and stroke patients.
Being hospitalized can have significant emotional and psychological impacts due to the stress of worrying about one’s health, the pain associated with one’s condition or just the length of time you’re in the hospital away from family, friends and your normal life. Hospitalized patients may experience stress, boredom, depressions and other effects.
Another one of the benefits of VR in medicine is its ability to alleviate these impacts. VR games can help to distract patients or just entertain them while they wait in the hospital.
One such game, called DEEP, is designed specifically to help you relax. You control the game with your breathing via a controller that measures your diaphragm expansion. As you breathe deeply, the beautiful underwater world reacts, encouraging deep breathing and teaching you yogic breathing techniques that can help relieve stress, anxiety and mild depression.
Other VR experiences aren’t exactly games, but they allow you to virtually leave the hospital and explore a range of other worlds. They could even allow patients to virtually spend time at home or in other places that are special to them. With a VR headset and live video from their home or other location, the patient can look around their home and talk with their family from the hospital. This can be especially comforting for children, and it means they don’t have to miss special events such as birthday parties or school events because they’re in the hospital.
Medical VR may also be able to help addicts recover and prevent relapses from occurring in the future. Similarly to the VR therapy for PTSD and for phobias, VR programs for treating addiction gradually expose the patients to stimuli that might trigger a relapse. A clinician will control these stimuli and help teach the patient how to deal with urges.
This kind of treatment can be used for patients recovering from addiction to alcohol, cigarettes, drugs or other substances. The virtual environment can even be customized based on the patient’s substance abuse history. For instance, if they typically smoked with coworkers on breaks at work, the virtual environment could consist of the outside of an office building where people are smoking. The clinician would then walk the patient through the situation and teach them techniques for dealing with their urges to smoke.
These treatments are still in early phases, but initial tests suggest that they may help recovering addicts say “no” when they encounter triggers in their everyday lives. Because the brain has trouble differentiating between virtual stimuli and real stimuli, virtual environments can serve as useful practice for dealing with real-life temptations.
Virtual reality can also be helpful for teaching patients. Medical information can be complicated and hard to understand, even for those with medical backgrounds. For patients, it can be especially confusing. Using VR, however, to explain medical concepts can make them more engaging and easier to understand.
When using VR, patients can see how a certain medical device, procedure or medication works. You can even create VR animations that show, for instance, how a medicine reacts with the body. Most people are visual learners, and the interactivity of VR can help patients learn even more.
VR can also make learning about medical topics more fun, which could be especially useful when educating young patients. Healthcare education could potentially include VR games.
Medical professionals could use VR, for example, to explain a medical procedure to a patient, helping them to make a more educated decision and feel calmer about an upcoming operation.
VR can also help to educate patients about the health impacts of their daily lifestyle choices and improve preventative care. One virtual reality program, for example, shows patients how drinking soda impacts their health and body. The patients watch a super sped-up visual of how their body would change if they drank a soda every day for two years. Researchers say this visual representation does a better job of convincing patients of the harmful effects of soda than other techniques such as educational pamphlets.
There are many ways virtual reality is improving healthcare by reaching patients directly. VR personal fitness apps can gamify your workout or transport you to virtual environments to make workouts more fun. There are a wide variety of these programs already available. These programs can improve patients’ overall health and prevent future health problems.
VR fitness programs can help teach you workouts and give you feedback on your movements, make exercise into a series of games or encourage you to work out even when the weather is bad by providing scenic backgrounds for running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike. These VR experiences could also play a role in physical therapy.
Virtual reality is also revolutionizing the education and training of medical professionals.
Traditionally, medical students use cadavers to learn about anatomy. This method can be effective, but there are often many students to each cadaver, the labs are expensive to maintain, and you need people who were willing to donate their bodies.
Today, some medical schools are using virtual reality to teach students about anatomy. Anatomy VR programs enable students to explore different parts of the body and see how the body’s various systems work together. When using VR, students have more flexibility in how they can explore the body and can easily look at body parts from any angle.
VR also affords students the opportunity to see a range of medical conditions virtually before they see them in a patient. For instance, students and residents at Stanford University use VR goggles to observe congenital defects in an infant’s heart. They currently have access to two types of defects, but Stanford is working on adding more with the long-term goal of having multiple models of heart diseases as well as lung and brain diseases.
Doctors and medical students can also use virtual reality to learn how to perform operations. They may do them for the first time virtually, and VR programs are also useful for practicing rare surgeries before performing them on a patient. By combining VR with haptic robots, virtual operations can feel even more real. VR can also help students train on other medical scenarios, such as those that might occur in an emergency room.
VR can help non-medical professionals as well, teaching important skills such as CPR and the Heimlich maneuver.
VR can also help medical professionals increase empathy for patients and obtain a better understanding of what they’re going through. One VR experience puts students in the shoes of Alfred, a 74-year-old African American man who has high-frequency hearing loss and advanced macular degeneration. The students go through various scenarios, including a birthday celebration and a doctor’s visit, in Alfred’s shoes.
One study of this VR program found that 94 percent of the students who participated reported having increased empathy, 92 percent reported having improved their knowledge of macular degeneration and 90 percent said they had a better understanding of hearing loss.
VR technology is having an increasingly prominent impact on the medical field, and medical VR treatments and programs are becoming more common. Ghost Productions is a leader in this medical VR space.
At Ghost Productions, we create vivid, immersive, medically accurate VR experiences that we custom-design to meet our client’s needs. We continuously work to improve our technologies and products and deliver the best possible results.
We also strive to make it easy to work with us, even if you’ve never worked on or used a virtual reality product before. We’ll meet with you to discuss your needs and keep you informed all the way through the process of completing your projects. Our streamlined production-review tools help us accomplish this.
If you’re interested in learning more about our capabilities and how we can help you achieve your goals? Feel free to browse our website, including our video vault of completed work, and contact us here.
The idea of immersing oneself in a “virtual world” can be traced back as far as 20 A.D.
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