Virtual Reality Opens New Doors Across Healthcare

September 27, 2016
Ed Rabinowitz

When virtual reality technology first came on the scene it most definitely targeted the gaming industry. Now hospitals and healthcare organizations are eager to test virtual reality in different situations.

When you think about virtual reality, what comes to mind? Likely it’s the image of someone wearing a headset or helmet by which they are transported into a three-dimensional environment within which they can interact. Being behind the wheel during a high-speed car chase. Or hunting down aliens on a far-away planet.

But virtual reality, while still in its infancy, is gaining traction within the healthcare arena with practical applications like virtual treatment and patient tours of health facilities.

Melissa Tait, senior vice president of technology and project management at digital marketing agency Primacy says that virtual reality prototypes are being developed to explore uses ranging from clinical assessment, wellness prevention and rehabilitation to compliance management and training.

“Healthcare is one of the biggest early adopters,” Tait says. “Everybody is trying to understand how to best use it. There’s a lot of opportunity.”

Beyond gaming

When virtual reality technology first came on the scene it most definitely targeted the gaming industry. Having the ability to transport someone into a completely different set of surroundings, so that you’re no longer fighting off space invaders from the couch in your living room, made the user part of the experience.

Now hospitals and healthcare organizations are eager to test virtual reality in different situations. But Tait cautions it’s important to walk before running.

“The critical keys to adoption in healthcare are content and experience,” she explains. “It’s absolutely critical to make sure it’s engaging, it’s relevant, and connects to the person you’re trying to connect with.”

In other words, it’s not a fad like the rise of Pokémon Go. Privacy and security are essential. Who will see the data that is collected, and how will it be interpreted, and what kind of responses are being delivered back to patients?

“Keeping those things in mind will grow the adoption,” Tait says.

Already in use

Tait provides several examples of how virtual reality is being used in healthcare. For example, Cedars-Sinai, a non-profit hospital in Los Angeles, is running a clinical trial to test virtual reality scenarios with Cedars-Sinai inpatients to determine if they enjoy the experience while waiting for procedures or during their hospital stay.

Excedrin is using augmented reality, a close cousin to virtual reality in that it superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, for a project called The Migraine Experience. The goal is to bring true empathy to migraine sufferers, and help staff and family understand what migraine sufferers experience.

“[The Migraine Experience] really helped make a connection with family members, who were in tears,” Tait says. “They said, ‘I didn’t realize this is what you went through.’”

Virtual reality is also being used as a training tool. Tait says that at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, formerly Miami Children’s Hospital, virtual reality is being used to increase the retention rate. According to Tait, the retention rate using virtual reality training is 80 percent compared with 20 percent after a week of conventional training.

Cost-benefit

Tait explains that there are many ways to implement virtual reality as extremely low-cost solutions. She says that Cedars-Sinai, for what she calls the “escapism” scenario, used out-of-the-box virtual reality prototypes that came with the purchased headsets. Total cost is about $600.

“They didn’t create anything custom,” she says. “They’re using virtual reality at a very low cost of entry, and they’re seeing a lift in their patients, and that they’re healing faster. From there, they can probably take that data and identify if they want to do something on a larger scale.”

And that’s the key, Tait says.

“You kind of have to prototype along the way,” she says. “You wouldn’t want to go all in and create this huge thing and then launch it. What folks in the healthcare industry really need to do is think through how they want to use it. Test it out and put a toe in the water.”

Which is apparently what’s happening. Tait says that there is much discussion around the ways virtual reality can be used in healthcare—from practitioners to providers to marketers. The key to remember is that the technology is going to continue to evolve. Today it’s large devices that sit atop a person’s head. Tomorrow virtual reality could come in the form of contact lenses.

“Be aware and knowledgeable as to how it’s evolving and where it’s going,” Tait says. “And be prepared to go along for the ride and see where it goes. Because it definitely is going to evolve.”