With technology evolving at breakneck speed, it’s fair to say that the sky is the limit when it comes to the use of virtual therapeutics

For many years, the notion of virtual worlds and digital realities were simply the reserve of science fiction. But, as the digital revolution has continued at pace, advances in technology have allowed virtual reality to cross the boundary into real life, transforming the way many industries operate.

From travel and education to architecture and aviation, demand for virtual reality has exploded over the last decade as business leaders and innovators leverage its benefits across training, early-stage design and development and customer engagement and interaction.

According to the IDC (International Data Corporation), global spending on virtual and augmented reality is set to increase six-fold from $12 billion in 2020 to $72.8 billion by 2024 and account for two-thirds of all consumer electronic goods. Yet, despite this, healthcare has been slow to match many of its counterparts when it comes to the adoption of new digital capabilities.

That is not to say that virtual reality is a completely new concept to the medical profession. For decades, scientists have been harnessing the benefits of immersive technology in treating patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). More recently, the technology has been making strides in helping surgeons to create 3D models of patients’ organs.

However, its medical use has largely focused on education. The perceived high costs associated with deploying the technology and a traditionally cautious approach to digital innovation has meant that many sectors within healthcare are still in the early stages of realising its vast potential for patients.

The events of the past 15 months, while catastrophic, have ushered in a new era for healthcare. Healthcare systems have been placed under huge strain as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with patients facing long-term mental and physical health crises on an unprecedented scale. As a result, the need for new and innovative healthcare solutions has never been more essential, and the endless potential of virtual therapeutics is fast emerging.

The power of virtual reality

Virtual reality therapy involves immersing patients into three-dimensional simulations of real-life scenarios. Vast investment over the past decade by companies like Google and Facebook, among others, has helped to create richer, sleeker and more immersive and realistic virtual environments.

These powerful simulations have already made significant headway when it comes to treating PTSD, but numerous studies in recent years have begun to show its untapped value in helping to treat a number of other health conditions and reduce pain among patients.

A pilot study conducted by St George’s Hospital in December 2019 discovered that 80% of patients undergoing upper limb surgery felt less pain after wearing a virtual reality headset during the operation. Similarly, preliminary data from studies exploring the efficacy of digital therapy in helping patients suffering from phantom limb pain have also proved promising. Scientists have discovered that by using powerful distraction techniques, pain pathways can be re-routed, preventing signals from reaching the brain. This discovery could have groundbreaking and far-reaching consequences for the healthcare sector and patient outcomes in the future.

But virtual reality has the ability to be far more than just a form of distraction therapy; it also offers the opportunity to develop personalised rehabilitation programmes. For instance, Swiss tech group MindMaze recently launched a tele-neurorehabilitation programme for stroke patients in the US, providing access to the group’s gamified digital therapy programme MindMotion GO from the comfort of their own home. Through the motion caption technology and accompanying hand dexterity hardware, therapists are able to monitor each patient’s movements, offering a tactical level of support on par with treating patients in person.

This level of personalisation also holds great promise for people requiring mental healthcare. A recent study in the Journal of Medical Signals and Sensors highlighted the success of virtual reality in treating claustrophobia, which adds to a growing body of research around the effectiveness of digital therapeutics in helping patients overcome psychological disorders.

In 2020, Oxford VR made waves with its virtual mental health programme to treat anxious social avoidance, prevalent in multiple conditions including agoraphobia, panic disorder, social anxiety, depression and schizophrenia. Patients are guided using a virtual coach and are able to access situations that are often impractical in face-to-face therapy.

Mental health is complex and requires a personalised approach to understanding triggers and needs in order for treatment to be truly effective. Enabling patients to be gradually and systematically exposed to individual scenarios that would normally create a difficult response has been shown to build better coping mechanisms.

Personalised healthcare in future

In today’s hyperconnected digital age, personalisation has become part of everyday life, from the way we bank to the way we shop and consume entertainment. For the healthcare sector, personalised virtual therapy represents an exciting opportunity to provide tailored, more effective patient treatment programmes.

Huge strides in artificial intelligence and cloud technology have allowed virtual reality software to collect and store personal data to enhance patient therapies. Data tracking features, including respiratory rate, facial expressions and eye movements, provide medical professionals with in-depth insight into how patients are feeling and how they’re responding to the treatment provided, which will be particularly useful in mental health and wellness programmes.

We have already seen this start to take hold in commercial applications of the technology, with the launch of the Oculus Supernatural app – the world’s first subscription-based full-body fitness service for virtual reality. Highly intelligent and personalised metrics allow the app to calibrate user height, arm span, squat depth and lunges to adjust targets and exercises specifically mapped to the individual.

With technology evolving at breakneck speed, it’s fair to say that the sky is the limit when it comes to the use of virtual therapeutics. Going forwards, the use of mobile devices and smartphone apps to provide virtual therapeutics in homes, schools and community spaces is likely to become seamlessly embedded in the delivery of everyday patient-centric care.

There are of course challenges that need to be overcome. Access to affordable, stand-alone all-in-one headsets will be needed to push the technology forward for widespread adoption. There will also be a greater need for regulatory intervention and frameworks that provide patients with the assurance that treatment programmes and apps are suitable. Yet the benefits are significant. The technology might be perceived as costly and out of reach, but deployment of VR is likely to be more cost-effective. A recent study revealed savings of approximately £70 per person, due to the absence of dependence risk which is prevalent with opioids, and reduced risk of side effects.

Healthcare VR is also a major growth sector, with an expected compound growth rate of 29.1% in the next 4 years, so is a key area for investment. Despite concerns that not everyone will be eager to try virtual reality treatments, even older generations have demonstrated acceptance and are reaping the benefits.

COVID-19 has thrust the healthcare sector’s limitations firmly into the spotlight and provided a brutal reminder of the fragility of the system. In the UK alone, figures released last year showed there was a backlog of 4.4 million people waiting for treatment as a result of the pandemic. Healthcare systems also face an ageing global population, and with it a decline in physical and mental health. This perfect storm will serve as an accelerator for virtual therapeutics to become mainstream.

While we are yet to unlock the full treatment capabilities of virtual reality, we have witnessed the technology transform a number of other industries, and those that have prospered have one thing in common. They have welcomed the disruption that this new and unique technology has brought with it, and they have rebuilt their proposition with virtual reality as a core part of their digital offering. Now is the time for healthcare to follow suit.

Paula Bellostas Muguerza is partner and Europe head of Health Practice, and Afonso de Brito Canelas an associate, at Kearney