Virtual Reality in Healthcare: Technology, Meets Medicine

Virtual Reality in Healthcare

With the evolution of the medical world, the bar is being raised higher and at a faster rate than ever before. One of the catalysts for this constant positive flux in the industry is the advent of technology. Many industries have not been left standing, with the long tentacle of technology sneaking in to have a serious impact on things.

In the medical world alone, technology – in all its various forms – is being used across a multitude of disciplines, not just one. Our focus here, though, is virtual reality. VR is mainly associated with gamers but your ordinary couch potato could never have imagined that the same technology that was blowing up three headed, thickly muscled monsters is being used to relieve pain and transform the medical experience of countless patients.

Sounds infeasible, right? Well, not so much. And here is how.

Medical training in the virtual world

Life is as precious a thing as we can find in this world. It, therefore, stands to reason that the people into whose hands we commit our lives more than stand up to the challenge of saving it. Reading information from a book can only go so far in terms of educating soon-to-be medical professionals in the arena of saving lives. The same holds true for practising techniques on cadavers. I mean; there can only be so many unclaimed bodies in the morgue or those donated to science.

With virtual reality, the said techniques can be perfected through practice and total immersion into a horde of possible medical scenarios. Further progress in the field of VR ensures that not only are simple techniques learnt by first- and second-year students but also complex ones by those in advanced phases of their medical education.

Virtual Reality soothing real world burns

The technological inroads in the medical arena are so pronounced that virtual reality is making considerable impact as an adjunctive analgesic therapy for burn victims. This might sound quite ethereal but there have been studies following actual burn victims into whose therapy regimen VR has been incorporated.

Burn victims feel a lot of pain when they are resting and plenty more when their bandages and dressings are being changed. Physiotherapy to increase motion in damaged areas also induces pain. What virtual reality does is that it immerses the patient into another dimension – a digital one – during the procedure they are undergoing. This drags the attention of the mind away from the pain and into the interaction with the virtual world before it.

According to researchers, this kind of distracting and immersive virtual reality can reduce the procedural pain in patients by as much as 50 per cent.

A helpful tool in tackling PTSD and anxiety

Post-traumatic stress disorder has been running behind in the shadows for a while now, with many of the concerned authorities not willing to admit to its existence. Those who have faced the truth have tried to help survivors of traumatic experiences through cognitive behavioural therapy with imaginal exposure. This, however, does not entice the patient to call up some of the more traumatic memories so as to relive them.

The patients might not want to get in touch with the stimulus that traumatised them but the VR evokes these without the actual risk being present. According to Difede et al. 2007, virtual reality can bridge this gap to emotional engagement. This study was conducted on first responders to and survivors of the World Trade Centre attacks.

In the aforementioned study, the patients donned the VR headset and witnessed various stimuli including planes flying past the towers, normal New York sounds as well as the crashes and the sounds accompanying them. All this was in a bid to get them to confront the feelings they had that day. At the end of it all, the group that used VR therapy showed significant improvement in PTSD severity in comparison to the control group.

Mindfulness in healing

A person goes through a lot of things when they are sick. Apart from the physical faults brought on by the disease or injury, there are emotional aspects related to the experience of being sick and being in hospital. So inasmuch as the doctor might cure the disease, the patient might not be healed. This is because curing is the elimination of the disease whereas healing is the restoration of the person to their better self both physically and mentally. 

Mindfulness, on one part, is the ability of the medical professional to get in touch with their compassionate and empathetic side; in a sense feeling what the patient is feeling. This connection between patient and healer goes a long way in ensuring that the patient emerges from the ordeal happy and satisfied. It is this understanding between both parties that elicits self-healing qualities within the patient, augmenting the other therapies being administered.

Patients who are in hospital for a long time can start to get detrimental thoughts swirling around their minds. Mindfulness comes in handy in such a situation, allowing the patients to get a better outlook on life, fostering healing. Techniques like meditation focusing on breathing and specific objects can make mindfulness take hold faster.

Guess what, though? Virtual reality ties back into this aspect of healthcare as well. In some patients it is difficult to get the practices of mindfulness down. VR can be used to make this process simpler. A study by Nararro-Haro et al. 2016 showed that a patient in a bad mental state could be taught mindfulness to prevent self-hurt.

In this instance, both visual and audio stimuli were included in the virtual experience. The sounds and video encouraged the patient to observe and not focus on anything particular. In a sense, this urged the patient to be mindful of this virtual world, a practice that is transferrable into the real world.

So, what lies ahead for virtual reality in healthcare?

In the tech world, the ones and zeros can rearrange into any format to solve many a problem. Virtual reality is so adaptable that the medical realm has not even seen the entirety of just the tip of this iceberg.

Stress is a known factor that impedes the healing process. It takes a decent amount of effort to keep the stress at bay and virtual reality can help in a substantial way. Immersing patients into environments with soothing and relaxing sounds and images via VR eases the stress out of them. If and when virtual reality harnesses the power of relaxation, healing will have gained another technologically advanced comrade.

The adage goes, “Seeing is believing.” Virtual reality will further reinforce this when healthcare professionals take it on for making diagnoses of hard to reach areas in the human body. Some areas in the body are so minute that there is limited understanding of their mechanisms of function. VR can provide a front row seat to the simulated action of never before seen activities in the body.

In the plastic surgery niche, virtual reality can be used to show clients what they will look like before any invasive procedures can go forward. In an interactive form of the technology, one wears the headset and steps into a virtual world with a vanity mirror that shows them what their desired appearance will be. They can then be able to prance around, pout, and tilt angles to see if the look fits or even suggest alterations which are instantly in put into the VR software by the plastic surgeon.

With technology, nothing seems to be out of the bounds of possibility.

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Marnina Diprose holds a Bachelor Health Science in Dermal Therapies, a Diploma of Beauty Therapy and a Vocational Certificate of Laser and Light. Marnina has a strong passion in scar revision and holistic approaches to patient care. For media inquiries or if you have an interest in blog contribution please email info@arozedermaltherapies.com.au
 


References

Malloy, K. M., & Milling, L. S. (2010). The effectiveness of virtual reality distraction for pain reduction: a systematic review. Clinical psychology review, 30(8), 1011-1018.

Hunter G. Hoffman, Gloria T. Chambers, Walter J. Meyer, Lisa L. Arceneaux, William J. Russell, Eric J. Seibel, Todd L. Richards, Sam R. Sharar, David R. Patterson; Virtual Reality as an Adjunctive Non-pharmacologic Analgesic for Acute Burn Pain During Medical Procedures, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, Volume 41, Issue 2, 1 April 2011, Pages 183–191

Stefan Schmidt. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. October 2004, 10(supplement 1): S-7-S-14.

Nararro-Haro, M. V., Hoffman, H. G., Garcia-Palacios, A., Sampaio, M., Alhalabi, W., Hall, K., & Linehan, M. (2016). The use of virtual reality to facilitate mindfulness skills training in dialectical behavioral therapy for borderline personality disorder: a case study. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1573.

 Difede, J., Cukor, J., Jayasinghe, N., Patt, I., Jedel, S., Spielman, L., ... & Hoffman, H. G. (2007). Virtual reality exposure therapy for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder following September 11, 2001. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 68(11), 1639.

Virtual Reality in Healthcare. (2018). [image] Available at: http://hitconsultant.net/2016/06/30/virtual-reality-patient-experience/ [Accessed 14 Mar. 2018].

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