In the first in a series on MedTech, Nawar looks at the applications of virtual reality technology in healthcare and medicine.
What is virtual reality?
Virtual reality (VR) is the use of computer technology to create a simulated, 3D environment that can be interacted with and explored. By wearing a VR headset, you can experience unbelievable wonders from any place and at any time. The only limitation is your imagination.
The uses of this technology in gaming and entertainment are widely known. We see people zooming through space, visiting far flung lands or racing with dinosaurs without ever leaving their chairs.
But did you know that VR has astounding applications in medicine and healthcare too?
Training healthcare professionals:
Medical students can use VR applications to understand the human body. They can perform procedures in a controlled environment without putting a patient’s life at risk. Furthermore, a dentistry student could work on a virtual, 3D set of teeth. Or paramedics could train in simulated A & E scenarios safely and efficiently. Virtual reality simulation has been proven to help surgeons perform surgery faster, with fewer mistakes and greater dexterity, making it an invaluable tool.
Surgeons can use virtual reality to plan operations. They analyse detailed models of the patients’ bodies to find possible places where the procedure could go wrong. By interacting with rotatable, 3D models of organs they can take patients through a surgical plan virtually- increasing patient satisfaction.
This technique was used to help separate conjoined twins called Paisleigh and Paislyn. They were attached from their lower chest to belly buttons and were partially conjoined at the heart. A virtual model of the twins’ bodies was built from MRI and CT images so that doctors could explore it with VR glasses. This allowed them to better plan for any complications that could have arisen in the complex surgery. With the help of VR, the operation was carried out successfully.
Mental well being:
Moreover, virtual reality can be used for exposure therapy to isolate an anxiety related stimulus. Patients can face their fears whilst developing their coping mechanisms in a controlled, virtual environment. This technique has helped people manage public speaking anxiety, depression, body image issues and phobias. For example, if you had a fear of heights (acrophobia), you would be exposed several times to a simulation on top of a high building. This would give you a space to understand your phobia and feel safer in high places over time.
VR exposure therapy can also help military veterans manage their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Instead of avoiding traumatic thoughts, emotions and situations- which can worsen PTSD symptoms- the veterans are encouraged to confront their fears. They are made to walk on a treadmill whilst being immersed in images related to their experienced trauma. The act of walking towards the trauma makes it unavoidable. The use of VR can help personalise the treatment and gradually, the veterans learn to cope with their trauma- increasing their quality of life.
Burns patients must undergo certain procedures like changing bandages or cleaning wounds several times daily. They experience some of the most excruciating pain imaginable. So much so, that even the standard levels of opiods are not sufficiently effective. Therefore, an immersive VR application called SnowWorld is being created. It eases pain by captivating the patients’ attention in an icy world and playing a game where virtual snowballs are thrown at penguins. It can not only reduce the pain experienced in most cases but limit the use of strong opiods, turning a traumatic experience into something more enjoyable.
Using VR to distract patients during medical procedures has a calming effect. It aids pain management so that only local anaesthetic, not general, is required even in invasive surgeries. Therefore, it can greatly decrease the use of sedative drugs too. As the patient can stay awake during the procedure the use of virtual reality can also reduce recovery times afterwards. Combining this idea with hypnosis techniques has achieved ‘digital sedation’ where the patient is calmed by VR hypnosis to a sedated state before surgery.
But it’s not perfect…
However, despite all its benefits, virtual reality isn’t perfect. Some argue that it is impossible for simulations to always accurately re-create real situations. Especially because we can only simulate things that we know so it doesn’t allow for the unpredictability of life.
Students being trained using VR might not understand the consequences of mistakes. Therefore, they may treat important situations less seriously as it’s ‘not real’. This means that their results in a virtual environment may not always be the same as in a real one. Nevertheless, these issues could be lessened if a balance is maintained between the use of VR and other training methods.
In addition, the technology can be expensive for many organisations like teaching hospitals. This is because, there is not only the cost of buying it but also the costs of updates and maintenance. Furthermore, some feel that users of virtual reality can feel worthless as they have to escape from the real world. On the flip side, there are worries of people becoming addicted to the virtual worlds too.
Despite the disadvantages, the astounding uses of virtual reality in training, planning surgeries, exposure therapy and much more are still very much worthwhile. In the future, this technology will enhance and hone our current capabilities. It will help us to perform feats currently unimaginable. The only limitation is our imagination.
What are your thoughts on the uses of virtual reality in medicine and healthcare? Have you seen it in action? Do you have you any concerns about its uses? Let us know in the comments!