When people think of applications for virtual reality, video games are usually the first thing that come to mind. While VR gaming may be the most publicized and well-known avenue for this emerging technology, its amazing potential for improving healthcare should not be overlooked. The ability to transport users into immersive virtual worlds can be extremely beneficial for both doctors and the patients they serve.
The endless possibilities of VR are already beginning to attract attention. Currently, the market for virtual and augmented reality tech is valued at over $900 million, a number which is expected to triple in the next three years.
Preparing the next generation of healthcare professionals
Virtual reality may soon become the most effective way to train surgeons. The ability to fully model a human body in 3D is invaluable. Surgeons can view an interactive model of a person’s inner workings from any angle with perfect lighting, no obstructions, and no irregularities. Previously for practice, surgeons relied on donated cadavers, which don’t respond in the same ways as living bodies and are difficult to acquire. Instead of finding a constant supply of bodies to dissect and then dispose of, medical schools can simply boot up virtual simulations that cost them next to nothing to run.
This is useful not only for aspiring surgeons who are still in medical school, but also veteran surgeons who want as much information as possible before performing high-risk or complex surgeries. In 2016, Dr. Shafi Ahmed of the Royal London Hospital removed a man’s tumor on an operating table set up beneath a camera rig which streamed the operation live to interested medical workers around the world, who were able to watch it through VR goggles. Normally, being allowed to watch an operation firsthand is a rare opportunity only afforded to fortunate medical students, as too many people in an operating room can cause complications. But with VR rigs like the one Dr. Ahmed used, anyone can benefit from the expertise of other professionals.
Helping patients learn and recover
Virtual reality modeling can also be informative to patients, who can use it to view simulations and displays in a way that is simple to understand. The easy-to-use projections can give them a guided look at the inner workings of the human body, helping them to better understand their own bodies and conditions so that they know how best to stay healthy.
But patients can benefit from a lot more than just learning about the human body. Virtual reality simulations can help patients with pain relief, physical recovery, and psychological therapy.
VR simulated worlds, like those enjoyed by video game players, are an ideal distraction for patients suffering from chronic pain. This is especially true for those who, for health or safety reasons, can’t be given traditional pain medications.
For those undergoing physical therapy, virtual reality can be a useful tool. Allowing patients to do their daily exercises in a simulated environment makes those often frustrating activities more enjoyable, so that patients are more likely to actually commit to doing them regularly. It also tracks their data so that they can see their progress, which is a great motivator.
Aiding those with psychological problems
Even patients without bodily injuries can benefit from VR technology. For those suffering from psychological difficulties, VR goggles can be a useful therapeutic tool. Patients with extreme phobias when it comes to such activities as flying on airplanes, being in crowded places, or even simple social interactions may slip into a simulated world where they can face their fears privately and without consequences. They can also experience virtual ‘therapy sessions,’ where they can talk to their therapist in the comfort of a familiar setting, even if neither the patient nor the therapist is physically in that setting.
Patients suffering from Alzheimer’s or other forms of memory loss may soon be able to relive recorded moments from their past, which could be both comforting and helpful in retaining those memories.
There seem to be no limits to the potential of virtual reality. Nearly anything that can be imagined can be simulated, which means that more new applications are constantly being invented. Even seemingly simple tasks, like electronic record keeping, one of the biggest sources of stress for physicians today, can be streamlined with this technology. Companies like Augmedix are developing wearable devices that automatically record and analyze a doctor’s interactions with their patients, storing those conversations as organized and easily accessible data which can be retrieved later.
However it is used, VR is sure to become an inexorable part of the healthcare industry as well as many others.