Virtual Reality: Transforming Healthcare for Patients and Providers

Virtual reality (VR) is usually associated with entertainment and gaming, but it's starting to take a leading role in the healthcare world. Virtual reality devices are increasingly used to manage physical and mental health conditions. They offer an immersive and interactive experience that simulates real life and even gives users the sense of sight, hearing, touch, and smell.

Key takeaways:

Medical professionals also use VR devices as tools to simulate procedures, practice surgeries, and develop skills. While VR has lots of terrific benefits, it also has some limitations.

Many people have seen films like The Matrix or Inception, so they are familiar with virtual reality (VR), although most of us think of it only in relation to games and entertainment. However, VR is a developing technology that allows users to step into a whole new world. Furthermore, this virtual environment looks and feels so real that it has become popular in health and wellness. Using VR devices, doctors, and therapists can now help people with physical and mental health conditions manage their symptoms and improve their wellness. While there are some limitations to using VR in healthcare, the future looks bright for this technology.

How VR devices work

Virtual reality devices offer an immersive, interactive experience in a 3D virtual environment that simulates real life. The devices combine hardware and software with specialized input devices like controllers or hand-tracking systems to deliver the sense of sight, hearing, touch and even smell.

Virtual reality headsets use tracking technology to follow the patient's head movements and make looking around the virtual environment possible. Screens in front of the user's eyes display realistic, 3D images of their surroundings. At the same time, haptic devices imitate the feeling of touch. Smell generators give off scents that complete the impression of being inside the virtual environment.

Using VR in health and wellness

Virtual reality offers powerful options for supporting health and wellness through a safe and controlled environment. Healthcare providers can practice and develop their skills, and patients can manage their symptoms and improve their general well-being. Some ways VR is currently being used in healthcare are:

Pain management

Virtual reality devices are effective in managing chronic, acute, or procedural pain. They provide a non-invasive and drug-free alternative to pain medication and can be used together with other pain management strategies.

For example, Samsung’s Gear VR mobile device distracts patients from pain during medical procedures. Patients can wear the headset and watch 360-degree videos or play games to reduce their anxiety and pain perception. Oculus Rift operates similarly to create virtual environments that distract patients from their pain, while Pain-Relief VR uses guided meditation to help patients relax and manage discomfort.

DeepStream VR uses biofeedback to manage pain. Patients wear a headset that tracks their breathing, heart rate, and other physiological responses. The software uses this data to create a soothing virtual environment to help patients cope with pain. FirstHand is a product specifically designed to help recover burn victims. Patients wear a headset and use a joystick to move their virtual hand in a virtual world. This helps them to handle their pain and improve their range of motion.

Mental health treatment

Virtual reality also effectively treats various mental health conditions, such as stress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. It offers a safe, controlled, and fully immersive environment for patients to confront their fears and control their symptoms. For example:

  • Oculus Quest 2 is a standalone VR headset used in immersive therapy sessions to deliver relaxation and guided meditation programs.
  • Limbix is a virtual platform where patients can practice coping skills and manage their symptoms.
  • Floreo is a VR platform specifically designed for children with autism spectrum disorder. It provides immersive environments that help children develop social and communication skills.
  • Bravemind is designed for veterans with PTSD, where patients can confront traumatic memories and learn to manage their symptoms.
  • Psious is a VR platform offering a range of exposure therapy programs for confronting phobias, anxiety, and PTSD.

Virtual reality offers a non-invasive and drug-free alternative for stress and anxiety management, reducing the risk of side effects associated with medication or other treatment methods. Biofeedback-enabled devices monitor a patient's heart rate and breathing and provide real-time feedback on their progress. All the devices and programs can be customized to match individual needs and used as an alternative to traditional therapy or in conjunction with other treatment options.

Physical therapy and rehabilitation

People typically get physical therapy (PT) to help them recover from injuries and illnesses, manage chronic conditions, and improve their physical abilities. Physical therapy uses exercises, manual techniques, and other methods to increase mobility, strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance. Whereas, VR devices are used during physical rehab to simulate realistic environments where patients can practice their range of movement and get immediate feedback about their progress.

How healthcare professionals use VR

Virtual reality devices can simulate medical procedures and scenarios, providing medical professionals with a safe and controlled environment to practice and develop their skills. The programs can create 3D models of patients' anatomy, allowing surgeons to plan and practice surgeries before performing them.

The devices can also deliver resources to educate patients about their conditions, treatments, and procedures, improving their understanding and engagement in their own care. Furthermore, VR can play a primary role in telemedicine. By providing remote consultations and virtual visits, VR can improve access to care for patients who can't travel to a healthcare facility.

Benefits of VR in healthcare

Virtual reality devices can enable access to care for people with physical limitations or disabilities, as well as those who live in remote areas and may otherwise be unable to reach treatment. They allow users to experience new environments and activities that might not have been possible otherwise. The simulations make therapy more fun and interesting for patients, improving their engagement. Since the virtual environment is physically safe, patients also have a lower risk of injury. Most devices can be customized to fit individual needs, making personalized rehabilitation programs a reality. The result is shorter recovery times for patients, allowing them to return to normal activities faster.

Limitations of VR in healthcare

While VR devices have many potential benefits for healthcare and wellness, their use also comes with some limitations, including:

  • Cost. VR devices can be expensive, producing a barrier to entry in healthcare settings.
  • Technical limitations. VR devices may have technical limitations, such as low resolution or lag, which can impact their effectiveness in healthcare applications.
  • User comfort. Some users may experience discomfort or motion sickness while using VR devices, which can limit their use in healthcare settings.
  • Limited research. While there is growing research on the effectiveness of VR devices in healthcare, there is still little research on their long-term effects and effectiveness.
  • Limited availability. VR devices may not be widely available in all healthcare settings, limiting their use and accessibility.
  • Lack of standardization. There is currently a lack of VR hardware and software standardization, which can limit usage and compatibility with other healthcare technologies.
  • Ethical concerns. There are some ethical concerns around using VR devices in healthcare, such as privacy issues, data security, and informed consent.

While VR devices have many potential benefits for healthcare, their limitations need to be considered before widespread adoption in healthcare settings. It is essential to do more research and develop standards for VR to ensure its safety, effectiveness, and accessibility for everyone.

The future of virtual reality devices in healthcare is very promising, and we can expect to see its momentum build with many potential uses and opportunities. These include immersive training for healthcare professionals, improved visualization of medical procedures and anatomy, and more accurate diagnosis and treatment planning. For patients, personalized treatments and better access through virtual visits will make a real difference to the outcomes of physical and mental health care and chronic disease management.

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