Written by Sasha Arion, Junior Account Executive at .
Virtual reality is transforming many industries around the world, and healthcare is no exception. Immersive cyberspace has not only captured the attention of science fiction fans, but also clinical researchers and medical practitioners.
As a sector that relies on scientific evidence and risk aversion, healthcare has been slower to adopt VR solutions than the gaming and digital entertainment industries. However, the VR healthtech phenomenon is progressing considerably as experts start to acknowledge its potential to change patients’ lives for the better.
Healthcare simulations have officially made their way into UK hospitals. In summer 2022, NHS England awarded two hospital trusts £400,000 to test the cutting-edge technology, allowing us opportunity to look at how VR is redefining the medical field so far:
#1 – Surgery Streaming
Surgical procedures are constantly evolving, which means that surgeons must keep their skills up to scratch. In order to perfect and maintain required standards, clinicians have opted to use virtual reality training tools. This enriching learning experience accurately replicates real-life scenarios and enables surgeons to train in a risk-free environment. Practising in a safe, manageable space provides great help for those who want to rehearse and hone their skills before operating on real patients.
With this upgraded surgical training in place, medical students no longer have to peer over the shoulder of a surgeon during healthcare procedures. Instead, they can simply stream operations globally and in real-time, resulting in enhanced training and better medical performances.
These streamlined medical practices come at a convenient time, as doctors are now introducing VR headsets to COVID-19 wards. This means that healthcare teams can inspect what the doctor sees over a live video, rather than being present on the ward and possibly compromising their health. Consequently, hospital workers are spending up to 83% less time in high-risk areas, therefore improving staff welfare and reducing the cost of PPE.
#2 – Anxiety and Pain Relief
Unsurprisingly, anxiety levels in hospitals tend to reach an all-time high. With few distractions, looming procedures and the thought of a painful recovery period, patients will undoubtedly worry more than usual. VR now poses an appealing solution for patients who are feeling the stress.
In many hospitals around the UK, patients are given the option to wear a VR headset prior to and during procedures. Rather than staring at the ceiling, they are transported to somewhere with calming surroundings, helping them to relax in what would otherwise be a very tense situation.
This technological remedy not only eases anxiety, but also offers immense pain relief, particularly for women going through labour. While it doesn’t eliminate the pain completely, VR is certainly a welcome distraction for women who want to avoid epidurals. Users of the virtual universe during childbirth provided positive feedback, revealing that the experience diverted their focus from an agonizing delivery. In a recent controlled trial involving 21 women, 95% stated that they would be open to using VR again in future labour, indicating a high level of patient satisfaction.
#3 – Treatment of Phobias
Exposure therapy is nothing new, but its collaboration with VR has instantly made it more effective. For some time, doctors and therapists have been using this form of treatment as a way of encouraging patients to physically confront their fears. It allows them to develop strong coping strategies when faced with their phobias in real life. With the use of virtual reality 3D computer graphics, clinics have begun to accelerate recovery processes. A notable example is Northumberland, Tyne and Wear Foundation Trust, which completed a study using VR treatments for children with autism-related phobias. Results revealed that almost 45% of patients remained phobia-free six months after the treatment.
By using VR to slowly increase exposure to patients’ conditions in a secure and controlled environment, patients have more chance of putting their coping mechanisms into practice. This medical intervention has been known to help people overcome fears of heights, spiders, storms and even public speaking.
#4 – Embodying Patient Perspectives
Virtual reality is helping practitioners to truly understand the lived experiences and conditions of their patients – all through the science of compassion. Using impactful simulations, medical students and young physicians are developing one of the must-have qualities of becoming a doctor: empathy.
People assume healthcare workers are naturally empathetic. However, no one can appreciate how someone else is really feeling unless they are in their shoes. When wearing a VR headset, physicians can virtually “embody” patients who are encountering a series of socio-emotional and medical challenges. This holistic approach towards healthcare enables health workers to maintain patients’ dignity through considerate, thoughtful, and inclusive problem-solving.
Above are only some of the many ways in which VR software is penetrating and benefitting the heavily regulated healthcare industry. What’s already possible within this area of healthtech is phenomenal, and we are only just scratching the surface.