Applications of VR & AR in the Medical Industry for Patients

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Virtual reality (VR) technology will soon impact all aspects of the medical industry, patients and clinicians alike. For patients, it allows for deeper understanding of the procedures they may go through, and all sorts of therapeutic tools. With virtual and augmented reality (AR) breaking through to the mainstream consumer market, the technology is more available and less expensive than ever. Now is the time when innovators in medicine are taking the technology and its applications to the next level, in wellness and therapy for patients everywhere.

 

Virtual Reality Technology Improves Patient Wellness

In holistic and preventative medicine, the applications for VR tech are numerous. This is the area most likely to be addressed by the gaming industry which has created the recent surge in this technology.

 

Physical Fitness

In the physical fitness arena, the applications are reminiscent of when motion controls like Nintendo Wii first came onto the market. The Wii introduced physical activity as an integral part of the gaming experience. Virtual reality simulations take the concept much further, immersing players into worlds and using 1-to-1 motion controllers to interact with it. Whether the genre is exploration, action, puzzle-solving, or more direct like sports and dancing, they all get gamers off the couch. Many of these games are ready off-the-shelf for institutions to help less-active patients combat the underlying cause of many conditions. For example, look how much activity it takes to play the game in this clip:

 

Socialization Training

In terms of social wellness, the risk-free realm of virtual reality can help patients on the autism spectrum learn how to understand social situations and read faces without the fear of embarrassment. Explore the research by Autism Speaks on a social situation simulator, which helped young adults with autism increase activity in regions of the brain linked to social recognition.

 Image credit: Autism Speaks

Image credit: Autism Speaks

Therapy in Virtual Reality Creates Real Results

Therapy comes in many forms, requiring a significant level of effort and commitment from the patient. It also takes up a lot of the doctor’s time. VR is already changing that. Doctors can leverage VR simulation therapy to improve clinical efficiency, allowing them to treat several patients simultaneously because they are all fully immersed in virtual therapeutic environments. For the patient, they can get past the reality of both physical and mental trauma by fully entering a different world tailored to their specific needs.

 

PTSD and Mental Conditions

For those that suffer from conditions like anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder, virtual reality can help them relive and manage their situation in a controlled, safe environment. Look at what the USC Institute for Creative Technology has created for war veterans:

 Image credit: CNBC

Image credit: CNBC

 

Exposure Therapy

Along with immersing patients in past experiences, patients with more theoretical phobias can be placed into controlled situations and safely pulled out in an effort to manage and relieve symptoms. For example, common glossophobia (stage-fright) can be combated through simulations:

 Image credit: Forbes

Image credit: Forbes

As can acrophobia (fear of heights) through mixed reality, using physical railing and virtual sights and sound to take a patient higher and higher:

Rehabilitation

If VR can be used for general fitness, it can be put to even greater use in rehabilitation. Physical therapy can be assisted by the virtual worlds inside the goggles, either with existing low-intensity games, or with specially-created PT experiences. The biggest issue in PT is patient compliance with an exercise regimen, in part because of discomfort, in part because of forgetfulness, and in part because of boredom. A take-home VR experience would enable patients to go through necessary motions in a far more engaging way. Not only that, but the motions of the head and arms could be tracked, providing doctors with much-needed data about recovery and whether patients are following through at home.

 

Pain Management

Some chronic pain can’t simply be healed on a continuous trajectory, only managed. There has been much written about this since the decades old “Snow World” which transported burn victims to a simple icy landscape with happy snowmen while their burn wounds were being cleaned. They reported a 25% drop in pain back then, and with better and cheaper technology, this distraction therapy might solve what opioids cannot - with none of the side effects.

 

Brain Damage Testing

Virtual reality can also help us catch brain damage at earlier stages, resulting in a novel approach to degenerative disease prevention. For example in the UK, football players followed complex visual instructions while trying to keep balanced in an ever-changing virtual world, providing a way of discovering concussions.

 

The Future is Bright

The course of technology has always driven developments in the medical field, and virtual reality is no different. Mass market consumer-grade VR has taken off, so the technology is here, it’s effective, and it’s affordable. In the medical realms of wellness, therapy, and training, the application of VR will only expand, improving the lives of patients and doctors as it does.