Virtual Medicine conference

Virtual Reality in Medicine: It’s Reality!

It’s official. Virtual Reality (VR) isn’t just for gamers anymore. It’s being used for therapies and medical training programs that have REAL results – many of which were on display at the Virtual Medicine Conference in Los Angeles in March 2018. With over 300 people from over 13 countries, the conference began with a virtual journey through the human heart and culminated with a call to overcome barriers and to keep testing and innovating.

Here’s how organizations are using VR today, and some of the highlights from the inaugural Virtual Medicine Conference – easily one of the coolest conferences we’ve been to this year.

An Escape from Pain

The best VR games make you feel like you are part of the action, so much so, that it’s hard to pay attention to anything else. Many of the VR therapies presented at the Virtual Medicine Conference work in much the same way for pain management. Patients who are suffering from pain are fitted with VR headsets and transported to virtual worlds filled with breathtaking seascapes or aerial views of Iceland. The brain becomes so immersed in these experiences that it can’t pay attention to much else – including pain. Dr. Brennan Spiegel of Cedars-Sinai calls this phenomenon “immersive distraction.”

At the conference, speakers touted study after study that seemed to offer more evidence that VR has a positive effect on patients. For instance, in 2017 JMIR Mental Health published a study on VR that had some pretty remarkable results. In this study, 100 patients who reported pain scores over 3 on the Numeric Pain Rating Scale reported a 24 percent drop in their pain scores after watching calming VR video content. And at this year’s conference, Samsung CMO David Rhew showed off a collection of MRI images demonstrating positive changes in the brain both during and after removal of the VR headset.

How long this positive effect lingers after the headset comes off is still a matter of debate, but at the very least, VR is a possible alternative. Just what is it an alternative to? That depends on who you ask. For Erin Martucci, appliedVR’s therapeutic VR content was an alternative to having an epidural. For Amanda Greene, VR continues to be alternative to taking more meds for her chronic condition. For patients with long hospital stays, VR is a welcome escape from the confines of their hospital room. And maybe, just maybe, VR is an alternative to the current opioid crisis. Only time, and more clinical trials, will tell.

Patient Education

How would you feel if you had to go to the hospital to have a procedure you knew nothing about? If you’re like most patients, you’d probably feel a little scared or anxious – especially if you were just a child. For some organizations, patient education is the key to relieving the fear of the unknown. And at the Virtual Medicine Conference, patient education platforms were one of the most popular topics.

HealthVoyager, a new kind of patient education platform, was on full display at the conference. Pioneered by Klick Health and Boston Children’s Hospital, HealthVoyager takes patients on a 3D virtual tour of their GI tracts, and shows them what their doctor found during their procedures. The HIPAA-compliant platform helps patients and their families go beyond the complicated medical jargon in a typical medical report, and helps them understand what’s going on inside their bodies – in VR.

Healthcare organizations are also relieving patient anxiety with VR through preoperative orientations, where patients put on their VR headsets and are transported through the hospital, introduced to a few key doctors, and even taken behind the curtain to see where their procedure will take place and what to expect.

IKONA is using VR to help patients understand what to expect before and after surgery. They are a turnkey VR solution for healthcare organizations – offering clinician training and patient education programs delivered via VR.

Mental Health Therapy

VR has also shown promise in the area of mental health. At Virtual Medicine, VR therapeutics for anxiety, depression, PTSD, and cognitive training were on display. In some cases, VR was used to recreate specific sounds and experiences that have been known to trigger a patient’s PTSD or social phobia. This helps the patient become desensitized to certain stimuli and develop coping techniques. And, VR therapy can take place at the therapist’s office, or from the comfort of home. Some organizations have also used VR to assess and treat depressive disorders, and help patients de-stress and get more sleep.

Medical Training

VR doesn’t just free up doctors to do what they do best — it can actually help doctors be better doctors. Programs like VSI Surgery enable doctors and other medical professionals see CT and MRI imagery both before and during surgical procedures. VR training modules have countless benefits, like helping reduce medical errors, and providing a more realistic environment for training doctors and students alike.

For VR to reach its full potential, the health tech community still has more work to do. Some VR headsets still aren’t approved for use with younger patients. More VR programs and content needs to be created to keep these programs going. Hospitals often don’t have the budget for this type of technology. And while VR may be part of a patient’s treatment plan, it isn’t always part of patient’s medical record – and it needs to be. However, based on the excitement and success surrounding this year’s conference, it will only be a matter of time before all these barriers are crossed – as long as the community has the commitment and vision to stay the course.

Learn more about the Virtual Medicine Conference at VirtualMedicine.health or follow the conference on Twitter @VirtualMedConf.

Check out these .health websites showcasing VR in health:

  • Immersive.health – A blog that educates readers about how VR technology is positively impacting patients and healthcare providers across the world.
  • IKONA.health – IKONA creates immersive content and mixed reality applications designed to improve the patient experience and train the next generation of healthcare providers.
  • Kortex.health – Home to Fisher Wallace Laboratories’ VR headset accessory – a device designed to manage stress and improve sleep.
  • VirtualMedicine.health – The Virtual Medicine Conference at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.
  • Voyager.health – A joint project between Boston Children’s Hospital and Klick Health, HealthVoyager uses VR to take patients on a tour of their own bodies, educating them about test results and procedures.
  • VSI.health – Virtual Surgery Intelligence (VSI) uses Mixed/Augmented Reality to assist surgeons before and during surgery. VSI’s software can also be used to educate patients and new surgeons.

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