Virtual reality (VR) has the potential to transform any industry that relies on hands-on interactions, from education, manufacturing, and especially healthcare.
The VR healthcare market is expected to reach $42.8 billion by 2028, up from just $2.07 billion in 2020, according to a 2021 research report by Verified Market Research.
That is a massive growth of over 20 times, indicating both strong potential and constant demand. One of the key areas of VR development that could change healthcare is the rise of medical VR systems.
What is Medical Virtual Reality?
Virtual reality is a technology that creates a fully immersive 3D environment where the user can interact with the world around them, others through 3D avatars, and participate in realistic experiences.
It is typically delivered through head-mounted displays (VR headsets) and controllers that allow users to navigate the virtual world.
Medical VR refers to the application of technology for medical purposes, whether as an alternative to traditional therapy, a way to increase the efficiency of therapy, or to address unresolved patient concerns.
Medical VR allows the industry to leverage the technology for healthcare treatments and enhance therapy sessions for physical and mental well-being.
This is in addition to other applications such as surgical VR training and virtual product design for medical equipment and clinical instruments. In medical VR, immersive technology is a core component of the therapeutic process.
Here are a few examples of how medical virtual reality can be useful for real-world use cases:
5 Ways Medical Virtual Reality is Changing Healthcare
VR could reduce pain levels experienced during medical procedures
There is research underway to explore if virtual reality could reduce the degree of pain experienced by patients while undergoing medical procedures.
Not only would this make procedures more comfortable, but it would also decrease the need for opioid and pain medication use, which could be habit-forming in the long term.
Patients could put on a VR headset that offers engaging visual experiences while undergoing procedures like dental surgery. This could make the procedure tolerable and even comfortable with only basic anesthesia.
In a 2021 experiment, researchers in Poland found that patients who put on a VR headset and were shown visuals of Icelandic landscapes during a rigid cystoscopy procedure experienced significantly less pain than those who did not wear headsets.
VR could facilitate the therapy process for anxiety and depression
Virtual reality offers a safe space where users can move around and interact with a virtual environment. It can recreate social scenarios while avoiding risks or anxieties.
For instance, by putting on a VR headset, a person could be transported to a restaurant populated by artificial intelligence-powered avatars (digital humans). The user can interact with confidence, which acts as a gateway for further therapies.
Japan’s Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma recently partnered with US-based BehaVR to explore the possibilities of medical VR in this use case.
The two companies are developing prescription digital therapy solutions that could be used in the treatment of Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).
VR could power new therapy programs for veterans with PTSD
Medical VR is also creating a new form of therapy called virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET), which helps patients work through their mental health issues by allowing them to confront stressors and expose them to those triggers in a safe environment.
It helps VR users discuss their trauma with therapists in more detail, and medical practitioners can help them work through the trauma by understanding and explaining individual triggers.
This has enormous potential to transform therapy for veterans as it is difficult to recreate combat experiences for exposure therapy. VRET can generate lifelike environments for veterans and therapists, even aided by memory-provoking odors. This is the approach adopted by the VRET solution, BraveMind, created at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies.
Medical VR makes physiotherapy more accessible
In the period following a major surgery or an accident, patients may be confined to a bed, which causes challenges for their mental well-being as well as physical discomfort to significantly reduce average recovery times.
It can also help address chronic pain and challenges of confinement by providing an accessible escape, which requires minimal movement.
For instance, the patient may put on a VR headset and undergo guided breathing exercises in a calming, safe environment to escape the immediate confines of the bed.
In addition to traditional rehabilitation, medical VR can help in overcoming substance abuse.
Substance abuse often begins as a coping strategy for a person’s real-life problems, and with time, elements from a person’s life and surroundings can turn into dangerous triggers.
One of the biggest challenges of rehabilitation is separating the person from those triggers, which can be challenging for those with full-time jobs, children, disadvantaged backgrounds, or locations lacking adequate rehabilitation facilities.
Medical VR is more accessible and offers a safe space where patients can get away from their triggers, stay anonymous, and receive guided help.
A good example is Help Club, a VR game for the Oculus Quest that transports users to a virtual environment to receive peer support, receive coached guidance, and learn healthier coping mechanisms. This application of medical VR is called Cognitive Behavioral Immersion™.
As virtual reality becomes more sophisticated, intuitive, lifelike, and affordable, the next step is to expose the potential of medical VR to a wider audience.
To achieve this, the industry needs proper oversight, regulations, and approvals by the FDA or an equivalent body, which is the next step towards reaching its full potential.