September 15, 2017
Virtual reality, or just VR as everyone refers to it, is not just another gadget used only by the entertainment industry. It has a myriad of applications in industries such as tourism, education, sales & marketing, etc. The technology has finally penetrated the healthcare industry as well. From treatments to training, VR in healthcare has many applications.
Before we understand the applications of VR in healthcare, a glimpse on what is VR and how it functions.
Virtual reality is a technology that uses headsets to generate realistic images and sounds that stimulate a user’s presence in an imaginary or virtual environment. The headset consists of head-mounted goggles with a screen, which displays the environment to the user. 
From a users’ perspective, the headset does all the magic. They (the headsets) are also known as Head Mounted Displays (HMD). The headset has these elements:
3. Head tracking
4. Motion tracking
5. Eye tracking
The display has only one purpose and one alone, to project images to the user’s eye. Most HMDs use LCDs, while some use OLEDs. It is foolish to think that any display will serve as a VR display, technically it will. But hold the display a couple of inches from the eye and it wouldn’t seem virtual at all. Therefore, to create an immersive feeling of a virtual world, a flat image needs to be stretched to fill the entire human visual field. This is done using optics, which are actually lenses. The quality of lenses makes or breaks the entire experience.
The video is sent from a computer or console to the headset using HDMI cables. The headset constantly tracks head movement across all axes to offer a low latency experience. Similar is the case with motion and eye tracking. With these elements done, the final aspect that needs to be taken care of is audio. While most HMDs do not offer inbuilt speakers, headphones jacks are provided.
The mechanisms of virtual reality and HMDs are complex. However, it is not stopping players in the healthcare industry to adopt VR.
Therapy: One of the uses of VR is that it can be used to track body movements. This feature lets patients use the movements of their therapy exercises in an interactive way. To illustrate, VR technology can be used to build a game interface so that the patients can “play” to undergo therapy.
Using VR to treat patients is a lot more fun, both for patients and doctors. Patients will want to attend the sessions more often due to the interactive interface provided by VR. Based on patient interaction and their ability to perceive VR, systems can be designed for better rehabilitation.
Phobias: If an individual has certain fears or phobia, he wouldn’t want to be exposed to it in real life. How would VR help him in his battle to overcome the phobia? Graded exposure therapy is the answer. In this therapy, patients are introduced to their fears slowly. VR is great at adjusting the level of exposure, which cannot be done in real life. Additionally, patients can attend these sessions whenever and wherever they feel like. Phobias like coulrophobia, arachnophobia, acrophobia, and many more can be treated using VR.
Managing Pain: Studies prove the VR helps in relieving pain. This is done by distracting the somatosensory cortex, part of the brain that is linked to pain. The cortex is less active when patients are immersed in virtual reality.
Rehabilitation: VR helps in cognitive rehabilitation as well. Patients suffering from trauma often find everyday tasks to be difficult. With the help of VR, patients can practice these tasks in a safe virtual environment. By recreating the environment and steadily increasing the level of complexity, patients can surely recover from the trauma and regain their cognitive function. The same technology can be even used to assess the patients.
Helping Children: Being in a hospital can be stressful for adults. Imagine a child in a hospital for an extended period – the amount of stress caused by being restricted would be tremendous. Children have the capability of recovering faster than adults, but they would be missing home, their buddies, and their parents more than their adult peers. VR helps in recreating the environment that they love while they are recovering in the hospital. They can even attend birthday celebrations, football games of their friends without leaving the hospital.
Currently, the healthcare industry is one of the biggest adopters of VR technology. While the above-mentioned therapy use cases are targeted towards treating patients, the other use cases of VR lies in training and learning. One of the biggest advantages of the VR technology is that it allows for learning new skills and refreshing old ones in a safe environment.
Training: Conventional methods of training doctors and nurses is time-consuming and expensive. But VR can be used to train doctors and nurses at reasonable costs. Healthcare professionals can practice operations, learn anatomy, and teach infection control.
VR can be used to perform surgeries as well. Dr. Shafi Ahmed, a cancer surgeon, performed the first operation using VR camera at the Royal London hospital. The operation was streamed live through the medical realities website. This is a phenomenon in the VR world as medical students from across the world could “experience” an operation even though they weren’t in the same room, building, country or even continent as Dr. Ahmed. The students could follow the operation through two 3600 cameras and understand how the surgeon performed the surgery.
VR is expected to elevate the learning and teaching experience in medicine. Currently, only a few students are able to look over the shoulders of a surgeon during an operation, and they often complain about not being able to see the entire procedure correctly. With VR, these challenges can be addressed with ease. VR helps in building confidence and helps in gaining experience. By performing surgical procedures on virtual patients, students can polish their skills, receive real time feedback, get accustomed to new technology, which will eventually be implemented globally, and refresh dormant skills, all while causing no harm to any patient.
VR has proven to be a real benefit for students in their training. The other aspect is robotic surgery.
Robotic surgery in itself is a new innovation in which a surgery is performed using robotic devices. For example, a robotic arm is controlled by a human surgeon. What this means is that there would be fewer complications during surgery and the procedure can be faster as well. A robotic device such as the robotic arm is much more accurate, which leads to smaller incisions, reduced blood loss and a faster recovery.
How does this translate to VR? With the help of VR technology, the surgeon can be in a different location and still perform the procedure. All he must do is wear the VR headset and operate on the patient. This is extremely helpful if a patient needs immediate attention from a surgeon, who is too far away to reach him in time.
Here is an amazing example of how VR saved the life of a baby girl Teegan Lexcen, who was born with only one lung and a half heart. The doctors at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami were able to map her heart in virtual reality and plan a surgery technique that saved her life.
Using the 3D VR model of Teegan’s heart, Dr. Redmond Burke had a complete idea of what should be done to save the girl’s life. If conventional methods were used to treat the toddler, doctors would have spent a lot of time trying to figure out the heart and lung after opening up Teegan’s life, which would further complicate matters.
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Nice article. Good ideas to implement VR. Thanks
Good one. Enjoying Reading. Recently, I have shared some interesting things about Mixed Reality and how it’s using in Healthcare and its New Possibilities. You can check out here, https://medicustech.blogspot.in/2018/01/mixed-reality-in-healthcare-and-its-new.html