VR: Immersion and Interaction in a 3-D Environment 

The health care industry is already one of the most enthusiastic early adopters of virtual reality. Frost & Sullivan analysis of the virtual reality space has determined that the technology has just scratched the surface of its potential in health care applications and in general. 

Virtual reality (VR) is being heralded as the next big thing in entertainment and consumer electronics. VR headsets are becoming a staple of mobile phones and gaming consoles, drawing consumers into a virtual and interactive 3-D visual environment. A person wearing a VR headset is able to “look around” a simulated environment: a street-view map, a video game layout or a movie scene. What would one gain by “looking around” in a health care setting? Indeed, would the health care industry even be receptive to such a “gimmicky” technology, as Erik Kain, a technology blogger, called it in a Forbes post?

Turns out, the health care industry is already one of the most enthusiastic early adopters of VR. A quick search on PubMed displays a staggering 1,728 scientific publications on the technology over the last five years—almost one publication a day. Filtering the results by their application area reveals more than 500 studies in the context of rehabilitation; more than 900 in the context of training, and 596 related to VR in surgery. The interest among the scientific community is reflected in patent filing trends, the competitive landscape, and in commercialization success. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), 1,163 patents were filed in 2015 pertaining to VR in the health care industry. 

Exhibit 1 shows a breakdown of the IP activity in the VR medical devices space.

Exhibit 1: VR Patents Filed Under the Medical Applications Category, Global, 2015

There are many reasons for excitement in the health care industry. VR provides diagnosticians with unencumbered, high-resolution, three-dimensional, wide-field viewing. The ability to zero in on the subject from previously impossible angles is a huge bonus when diagnosing a disease or planning for surgery. The immersive interactivity provides other benefits that will be explored in the context of some of its myriad clinical applications.

Pain Management and Physical Rehabilitation

Physicians believe that VR will play an important role in managing pain and weaning patients from the use of (and dependence on) opioids. It is important to understand that while VR does not actually treat or cure pain, it acts as a distraction or a diversionary force to mask the sensation of pain. Studies have shown that patients who spent merely 20 minutes in a virtual environment experienced reduced pain perception by 24%—from a mean pain score of 5.5 on a 10-point scale to 4.2. 

AppliedVR, a start-up in this space, has put together commercially available VR headsets and custom-developed games that distract patients experiencing pain after surgeries, during blood draws or tissue biopsies, or when epidurals are administered. AppliedVR is also working with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to study the impact of VR on patients suffering from different types of pain, such as abdominal pain from pancreatitis and chest pain from pneumonia.  

The University of Washington’s Human Photonics Laboratory has developed a VR-based game called SnowWorld that simulates a cold environment. Patients are immersed into it to soothe pain during wound care. 

Gesturetek Health, a company that develops VR products for therapies, has developed Interactive Rehabilitation and Exercise (IREX) system that immerses patients into a fun environment and “gamifies” the grueling process of physical rehabilitation.

Intraoperative Navigation and Surgical Planning

When surgeons at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami were presented with a 4-month-old baby with a heart condition that was deemed inoperable, VR proved otherwise. Surgeons resorted to a rather crude assembly of Google Cardboard and a third-party 3-D modeling app called SketchFab  to create an interactive model of the pediatric heart that was viewable from 360 degrees, plan the surgery, and carry it out on the patient.

The field of robotic surgery provides a fertile ground for VR’s growth in this space.

Managing Phobia and Psychological Therapy

One of the most effective applications of VR has been in psychological rehabilitation and therapy for patients suffering from phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder. Exposure therapy—the practice of exposing patients to their fears in a controlled environment in a bid to master them—has greatly benefitted from VR technology. 

San Diego-based Virtual Reality Medical Center, Duke University’s Psychiatry Center, and others have designed programs that use graphics and simulations that gradually expose patients to their triggers, empowering them to manage their fears. Programs have been designed to treat numerous phobias, including fears of height, closed spaces and public speaking. 

Other areas of research include managing phantom limb pain, social cognition training for patients with autism, treatment of anxiety and depression, stroke rehabilitation, and the management of ADHD in children.

The Road Ahead: The Future of VR in Health Care

Frost & Sullivan analysis of the VR space has determined that the technology has just scratched the surface of its potential in health care applications and in general. 

As fundamental imaging and diagnostics platforms continue to transform, VR will become an integral component with better-quality data (e.g., higher resolution, more angles) that can be used to create a 3-D universe for patients and propel concepts such as robotic surgery and telemedicine.  

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