If you still think that virtual reality is only good for gaming, recent studies demonstrating its benefit in healthcare may change your mind. Virtual reality shows such potential for easing pain, addiction, and mental health disorders that some in the healthcare world anticipate the birth of a new medical profession: the virtualist, who is responsible for “prescribing” appropriate virtual reality environments. Here are 5 ways virtual reality is changing patient care right now:
1. Easing preoperative anxiety
Multiple randomized controlled studies have demonstrated that patients awaiting an operation experience reduced anxiety when immersed in virtual reality content as opposed to standard care. Content included beach scenes in conjunction with guided relaxation audio. The technique is finding a foothold in easing anxiety during dental procedures as well. The real outcome? Less need for preoperative anti-anxiety drugs and anesthesia (anxiety in preoperative patients can increase the need for anesthesia, and related risks).
2. Motivating greater effort in physical therapy
Physical therapy, which often requires repetitive and painful motion, is one of the earliest adopters of virtual reality technology in the medical field. Stroke rehabilitation, balance training for cerebral palsy patients, and motor-cognitive training for Parkinson’s patients have all benefited from a “gamified” approach which directs the patient’s focus through a virtual environment.
3. Exposure treatment for mental health disorders
VR treatment has been shown to be effective in treating generalized anxiety, schizophrenia, substance-related disorders, and eating disorders. Therapists embrace VR’s potential for situational treatment. The technology allows patients to experience their problematic situations in a controlled environment and be taught how to overcome their associated psychological barriers. VR shows particular promise in treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
4. Training surgeons
Surgeons learn by doing — but who wants to be the test subject? Repeat practice in a virtual environment significantly increases the rate and quality of knowledge transfer; so much so that the technology is inspiring a paradigm shift in training in medicine.
5. Pain management
Technology at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford is used to ease pain through distraction, a proven technique. Virtual reality is an especially powerful distraction, as shown by one brave patient, Blaine “The Bullet.” Blaine suffered an injury to his arm during a go-cart accident, and his daily dressing changes were made almost impossible due to his extreme anxiety about the pain. The use of virtual reality made it possible without sedation or anaesthesia. Stanford is now exploring the use of VR for chronic pain treatment.