Virtual Reality Enables Practices to Improve Access

April 11, 2011
Ed Rabinowitz

The use of virtual reality applications, such as "telepresencing" communication, in healthcare is expected to increase rapidly through 2015, according to a recent report. One of the main reasons is the issue of access -- physician shortages are driving many to use technology to connect physicians with patients remotely.

The use of virtual reality applications in healthcare is expected to increase rapidly through 2015, according to a recent report from research firm Kalorama Information. The market for virtual reality applications has already experienced a compound annual growth rate of more than 10% from 2006 through 2010, according to its report, “Virtual Reality in Healthcare in the U.S.”

Richard Migliori, MD, executive vice president of benefits provider UnitedHealth Group Inc. of Minnetonka, Minn., is not surprised by the growth of virtual reality applications in healthcare, and says that the issue of access is a key driver of the growth.

“By the end of the decade, and maybe even sooner, we’ll be as many as 45,000 primary care clinicians short of what we need,” Migliori says. “What we’re trying to accomplish, and the way I would best define [virtual reality], is to be able to provide the physician and the patient with a greater ease of access, greater capacity, and an extension of the physician’s practice beyond the confines of the brick and mortar building.”

Having a "Telepresence"Migliori points to a pilot program UnitedHealth is conducting in Colorado, linking rural physician practices with the Centura Health System in Englewood. Primary care physicians working in remote clinics can seek the advice of a consultant or appropriate specialist by using “telepresencing” communication. The technology allows for a live video consultation between the patient, the referring physician, and the specialist at the same time.

“As you watch some of these accountable care organizations and the primary care medical home start to re-shape the structure of practices, this kind of technology can help a physician co-manage a patient with a nurse on the team,” Migliori explains. “If you have a nurse who’s doing coordination of primary exams at remote locations as well, this kind of technology can allow the physician to provide oversight to that nurse’s practice with much more ease than would be typical with more conventional practice patterns.”

He also noted that technology like UnitedHealth’s eSync, a tool that provides continuous surveillance over a population of insured people, allows for the recognition of care delivery patterns across the system, regardless of the patient’s location. “We know that one out of five people handed a prescription for a chronic condition won’t fill that prescription,” Migliori says. “But if the physician had the ability to track what was going on outside their office, and the care of their patient, then things such as non-adherence to pharmacy management can be mitigated.”

Virtual Patients in Education

Marjorie Zielke, PhD, assistant professor of arts and technology, and associate director for the Institute for Interactive Arts and Engineering at the University of Texas at Dallas, is helping to develop a distance-learning website for neonatal nurse practitioners that creates virtual patients. The virtual experience, which Zielke says is “a much more complex type of video game,” enables students to practice what they’ve learned through the lectures and other learning modules that are present on the site.

“It’s a new way of doing distance education,” Zielke says. “It allows us to be much more related to the clinical experience nurses will have than you could do with PowerPoint or any commonly used type of interactive material.”

Zielke adds that the program, which is about midway through a three-year grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, the primary federal agency for improving access to healthcare services for those who are uninsured, isolated, or medically vulnerable, is built around principles that could easily be applied throughout the healthcare sector.

“There’s absolutely no reason why the ideas that we’re working on here couldn’t be applied to other medical and medical-related fields, really pushing the ability to get a hands-on experience virtually,” she says.

Anticipating Adoption

UnitedHealth’s Migliori says that physicians are traditionally slow adopters of new technology because the consequence of their decisions is so vital. In order to get physicians to change, they must have confidence that the new technology will not only help them, but more importantly, that it will help their patients.

“You certainly see it in the clinical practice; you see some of the new technologies being used in the clinical care of patients, such as new imaging capabilities, and other direct medical devices,” Migliori says. “There is a slow uptake, and again, it’s an issue of trust. But once they’re in place, they become ready adapters.”