Healthcare is proving to be one of the biggest adopters of virtual reality, outside the gaming industry.

From simulating surgery and training doctors by interacting with virtual patients, to treating phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder through exposure to virtual environments, many experts are singing the technology’s praises, calling it game-changing in the healthcare space. Dr Albert “Skip” Rizzo, director, medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, says the biggest use of virtual reality is in the clinical setting, for example trials are underway to compare the technology’s effectiveness with traditional approaches in treating PTSD.    

Virtual reality can also be used to train and rehabilitate amputees, help autistic patients with social skills, in migraine treatment, eating disorders, and drug and alcohol abuse, not to mention improve movement and balance in stroke survivors. There is also scope to use virtual reality to promote public health by showing the effects of negative lifestyle choices.

Even for pharma there are benefits, says Kristina Augustinaite, psychologist at the Virtual Reality Medical Institute in Brussels, including simulations to predict the effects of new drug candidates before they enter human trials. In addition, virtual reality solutions may be a great alternative to some anaesthetics, with several hospitals in Brussels starting to use augmented reality applications to distract children undergoing painful medical procedures. 

Virtual reality could fundamentally change how care is delivered outside of traditional settings, particularly with the shift to virtual providers and telehealth, Rizzo believes. “For example, a patient newly diagnosed with COPD or congestive heart failure could have continuous access to a virtual provider to help monitor and educate them about their condition,” he says. In this sense, virtual reality could help enhance a patient’s understanding of their disease and strengthen adherence. 

And the technology promises even more, adds Augustinaite: “Virtual reality has the potential to minimise costs and establish collaborative relationships between medical professionals and patients. And since virtual reality solutions don’t have any side effects and are very attractive, especially for younger patients, they will definitely find their place in healthcare.”

Of course there are obstacles to implementation, like the requirement for additional training of medical professionals using the technology, as well as meeting any device regulations. “It is important to understand that virtual reality alone doesn’t replace a good therapist,” says Augustinaite, “but it does enrich a treatment and offers quicker results”.

And the sector is getting a new lease of life, as witnessed by Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition last year of Oculus VR, maker of the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift. Sony and Microsoft have also jumped on the bandwagon. 

There is “no doubt” virtual reality will take a front seat in healthcare and, as a result, say Rizzo and Augustinaite, it will transform the traditional healthcare system as we currently know it. 

This SmartTech article was published in the January/February issue of PharmaTimes Magazine. You can read the full mag here