A lot of the technological advances that we take for granted today started as science fiction. Think space travel or driverless cars — or virtual reality. In 1935, Stanley G. Weinbaum published a short story, Pygmalion’s Spectacles, about a goggle-based virtual reality system that created holographic experiences including taste, smell and touch. Virtual reality is no longer fantasy, and its arrival in healthcare is already making waves.
By 2020, the global market for virtual reality in the healthcare market could reach $3.8 billion, according to a survey by Global Industry Analysts. Driving that growth are advances in healthcare IT, growing demand for rehabilitation and simulation training and increasing preference for minimally invasive and noninvasive procedures, the group says.
Here are five ways virtual reality is disrupting healthcare today.
Education and training
One of virtual reality’s most promising uses in healthcare is medical education and visualization. At Case Western Reserve University Medical School in Cleveland, students are learning anatomy, pharmacology, surgery and other vital information using virtual reality holograms, MedCity News reports.
And in Miami, Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami has partnered with Next Galaxy Corp. to create virtual reality instructional software for procedures such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, nasal gastric tube insertion, starting an IV and wound care, according to Fortune.
And there’s evidence that virtual reality training is effective as a training tool. Compared with traditional training, with 20% retention after one week, the retention rate one year after virtual training is upwards of 80%, Narendra Kini, CEO of Miami Children’s Health System, told Fortune.
“Virtual reality is going revolutionize healthcare education — anything that requires the training of complex tasks, anything that requires practicing high-impact or high-risk activities in a low-risk training environment,” says Neil Martin, chairman of the UCLA Department of Neurosurgery, where virtual reality is being used to plan brain and spine surgeries and train residents.
“I think we’re at the very early phase of a massive deployment of virtual reality and variations of that—mixed reality, augmented reality. All of those are going to play a big role in education and training in healthcare in the future,” Martin adds.
Martin’s team at UCLA is also using virtual reality to evaluate brain anatomies, brain tumors, aneurysms and vascular malformations and plan surgeries more effectively. For over a year now, his department has been partnering with Mayfield, Ohio-based Surgical Theater to integrate the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets with Surgical Theater’s SNAP 3D surgical navigation system.
The process takes standard medical imaging and creates 3D models that can be used in virtual reality. The equipment cost a couple of hundred dollars, but because they’re using standard imaging, the incremental expense is minimal, Martin tells Healthcare Dive. “We’ve used it for hundreds of cases now, so [the cost] gets averaged out to a fairly modest number,” he says.
Other applications are being considered at UCLA and could be underway in the next six to 12 months, including cardiology, plastic surgery for reconstruction, head and neck surgery for complex tumors and orthopedics for complex fractures, Martin adds.
According to the GIA survey, eight in 10 doctors believe virtual assistants, aided by clinical language understanding, will “drastically change” the way doctors interact with and use electronic health records.
Moreover, 75% of doctors said virtual assistants could support care coordination and 80% said they would engage patients in the care process, help with medication and health adherence and help patients to modify behaviors.
The top three roles cited for virtual assistants were providing accurate, real-time information to support care, alerting doctors to missing information in patient records and authenticating a patient’s identity via their voice.
Empowering the patient
Virtual reality is also being used to enhance the healthcare experience as patients navigate what can be a complex and confusing system.
At the USC Center for Body Computing, for instance, doctors are using virtual and mixed reality to help patients better understand their different options for treating a medical condition. With the aid of an app, the center’s Virtual Care Clinic lets patients with access a variety of healthcare services, including a virtual physician. Patients can ask questions about their care and get information 24-7, allowing them to be more active participants in their healthcare.
“It’s not this patriarchal system anymore where in this closed room we dictate to a patient and they’re expected to remember it … It’s more of a continuous partnership,” Saxon told Healthline.
USC is also at the forefront of research aimed at using virtual reality to treat anxieties. At the Institute for Creative Technologies, Skip Rizzo is using a virtual reality exposure system called Bravemind to help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to confront and overcome their trauma.
Using head-mounted displays and 3D audio, patients are exposed to virtual sounds, vibrations, smells and images of places associated with their PTSD, such as a Middle Eastern city or desert road environment.
Currently, the system is in use at more than 60 sites, including VA hospitals, military bases and academic medical centers, according to ICT’s website.
Phobias, such as fear of heights and fear of flying, are also being treated with virtual reality, according to WMG Innovative Solutions. For example, patients with acrophobia may be placed on top of a virtual tall building to learn to deal with their fear. The idea is to start with less-threatening situations and gradually confront more anxiety-producing ones.