TrendWatch — How Virtual Reality Is Expanding Telemedicine
Virtual reality could be the key to life changing therapies and medical procedures
When people think of virtual reality (VR), images of its more recreational uses often come to mind. However, its potential expands much farther than its entertainment value. Healthcare industries like telemedicine are utilizing its unique communication interface to perform life changing therapies and medical procedures.
Every month, OpenLoop does a TrendWatch on hot topics, trendy technology and industry news in telehealth and telemedicine. This blog will cover what VR is, how it’s contributed to telemedicine and the healthcare industry, its challenges and what trends to watch for in the future. Let’s get started!
What is Virtual Reality (VR)?
The actual definition provided by Merriam-Webster is:
an artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli (such as sights and sounds) provided by a computer and in which one's actions partially determine what happens in the environment.
Basically, it’s a completely immersive virtual experience. Users have to wear a motion sensing VR headset, and sometimes controllers, to enter into the 360 degree interactive world.
It’s also used as an umbrella term for three other types of virtual reality.
Augmented reality (AR): AR is a digital overlay onto an image or something being viewed through a device, like an animated filter.
Simulation (mixed) virtual reality: a combination of real objects and environments with virtual people or places, either controlled by humans or by artificial intelligence.
Desktop virtual reality: (i.e., low-cost game console) also called a non-immersive.
VR’s contributions to telemedicine
The potential for and the success seen with certain treatments using virtual reality is/has revolutionized the way patients experience healthcare. VR has been around since the mid-1980s, but the recent telehealth boom and advances in technology have made its adoption into medicine easier.
The field of mental health care has embraced and seen positive results from virtual reality in the last few years. It’s been used in psychology for treatments like exposure therapy to treat phobias and anxiety disorders. Also, its flexible environment can put the patients into controllable scenarios to safely prompt their anxiety or fear, without actually having to go anywhere.
Other disorders using VR treatment:
Social anxiety disorder
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Eating disorders (ED)
In 2019, there was a medical study done using patients with Parkinson’s Disease to test the effectiveness of VR compared to conventional physical therapy. The study found that within the 12 weeks, VR resulted in a significantly better performance in patients.
This is done by combining several theories of neuroscience and motor learning. They offer task-oriented practice and reinforce voluntary repetitive behavior that are key to motor recovery after a neurological event. Their performance measurements can then be monitored by the physiologist virtually.
VR, combined with traditional rehabilitation techniques, has also opened the door for other neurological issues like those found in stroke patients. In an effort to assist these patients with their motor recovery, VR systems were developed. Interactive games were designed to provide patients with real life scenarios and movements relevant to every-day-life.
While VR has shown to be beneficial in the treatment of patients, it has also been utilized by providers and surgeons to increase their own skills.
Many have turned to VR to provide surgical training, much like that of a pilot going through flight simulations. It’s a virtual environment that can provide specific conditions when they are not easily delivered or controlled in the real world. Offering specialists more opportunities to prepare and practice for more difficult surgeries.
VR shows great promise in telemedicine, but it’s important to point out some of the challenges when thinking about making it a part of your practice.
Suitable educational training is needed in order to use and understand the specifics on how, where and for whom this technology is appropriate. This requires access to resources that can provide said education to both the providers and the patients effectively. These resources are not always available to every provider or patient. Some individual characteristics to think about when determining VR as treatment are:
History of motion sickness
Other unique psychological, cognitive, physical, and functional characteristics
As with any other leading-edge technology, cost is going to be a barrier to entry for some. Establishing a VR program requires high-quality hardware, high-speed computers, efficient graphics cards, accurate tracking systems, high-resolution displays and highly specialized accessories.
All of that can wrack up a bill fast. However, VR is more cost-effective today than it has been in the past and is continuing to make advancements towards more affordable technology. A good reason to keep checking back in if it’s not suitable for your practice today.
Some side effects
VR technology can provoke motion-like sickness, or cyber-sickness, in certain patients. This coincides with having proper education and knowing the medical record and history of your patients. If they have a history or start to present with these symptoms, another route of treatment may be preferencial.
In addition, patients may also experience perceptual-motor after-effects. This can happen due to delays in the readaptation of sensory and motor systems when re-entering the “real world”. This can present itself in:
Eye and hand coordination issues
Similar to our everyday use of screens, VR can also cause headaches and eye strain when overexposed. Make sure to check in with your patients throughout the VR treatment to understand how they react to it and if it’s the best course of treatment moving forward.
The future of VR in telemedicine
Virtual reality isn’t available to everyone quite yet as a remote treatment option—but it's certainly headed there. Providers are looking to it more and more for pain relief treatments, extending their services efficiently among patients and tackling provider shortages.
Additionally, as the technology improves, and cost goes down, more providers will be able to offer remote virtual reality services to their patients. Providing them even greater freedom and better access to quality healthcare via telehealth.
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What does it mean to partner with us? We offer full-stack, intuitive telehealth support services to assist you wherever you need it the most across:
Interested in what we can do for your organization? Get in touch here!