Once reserved for entertainment and gaming, virtual reality (VR) has now firmly established itself as a legitimate platform for improving healthcare. But, with all of the hype it can be hard to differentiate between the applications that are most likely to fizzle out and which will offer the greatest impact on the practice of medicine. To provide some clarity, we talked with Dr. Daniel Kraft, physician, entrepreneur and chairman of the Exponential Medicine Conference. The following includes his take on the pockets of medicine that are already experiencing the greatest VR advancements, with examples of the teams and technologies responsible for the innovation.
For years we’ve seen VR simulation technologies used for healthcare education and training. Companies such as ImmersiveTouch, VirtaMed and Medical Realities are combining 360 video and 3D interactive content to develop cutting-edge learning programs that place physicians and students inside a digitally replicated operating environment.
These technologies provide physicians and students with a risk-free setting to practice life-saving procedures and techniques–especially ones that are not commonly performed–while gathering usability feedback along the way.
There are a number of cognitive distraction methods designed to decrease patient pain and anxiety. Applied VR, for example, is a mobile platform designed to distract a patient by immersing them in a simulated world filled with interactive games. Other innovations such as SnowWorld, an app that provides therapeutic VR for burn victims, as well as experimental advancements in phantom-limb pain management, prove that there are drug-free pain management alternatives that can be used within, and outside of, clinical care settings.
Treating Mental Illness:
Exposure therapy is the standard for treating some mental illnesses. Enter VR in place of, or in addition to, those experiences and you have a reasonably low cost, flexible, low risk solution for treating mental illness.
Bravemind is a software designed for veterans that suffer from PTSD, where patients are immersed into a simulated battlefield scene, allowing them to gradually relive the trauma under the care and supervision of a clinician. Companies such as Virtually Better and PHOBOS provide similar exposure therapy to help patients cope with phobias and other anxiety disorders.
Virtual reality has also unlocked new ways of relaxing and calming the body. DEEP and Zen Zone, both Google Cardboard apps, offer peaceful, guided meditation experiences for treating anxiety and panic attacks.
Exercise & Physical Therapy:
A huge shift is happening in the fitness industry as many startups–such as VirZoom, Widerun and BlueGoji–couple cardio routines with VR to change the way we exercise.
Taking it a step further, VR is also starting to play a larger role in physical therapy, where some patients are being offered an exercise regimen that includes VR, in place of invasive surgery and/or drugs. Companies like Gesturetek Health is one such company.