Every avenue of the healthcare industry from medical education, to clinical support, to pain management will soon be positively impacted by a revolutionary tool that is not even tangible but rather virtual. Virtual Reality has been around for some time and is mostly identified with gaming, but it’s way more than that! Studies on practical applications of VR are now underway. VR is on the verge of having a wide-spread and profound impact on the healthcare industry.

Background

First, it’s important to understand how Virtual Reality, or VR, is used. VR can be set up for many different environments called Virtual Environments, or VEs. A VE can be created for almost anything, not just gaming. When you start thinking beyond gaming, practically anything is possible. For instance, environments can be set up to simulate a virtual classroom for college labs or a virtual operating room and beyond.

Once an environment is created, then a headset can be used to virtually immerse a person into that environment or smartglasses are used to project Augmented Reality, or AR, which is a mixed variation of the media.

Using AR, the user is able to see what’s going on around them in real-time, yet the smartglasses superimpose virtual elements, overlays, or other information in the user’s sight at the same time. The user can attend to a hands-on task and receive additional information as they work via the superimposed virtual elements.

When considering all the technical healthcare industry procedures that there are, the possibilities for integration of VR and AR are infinite.

Here are the top three health care integrations of VR/AR we love right now that you need to know about:

Medical Education

How skilled do you want your future doctor to be?

If you were about to have a complex surgery, chances are high that you want someone with experience, someone who has done that particular surgery hundreds or thousands of times. VR and AR are creating educational opportunities for medical students and doctors, who participate in continuing education, to have more interactive experiences before they ever see their patients. It is proving to be useful for improving overall healthcare education.

In the study, Augmented Reality In Healthcare Education: An Integrative Review, researches looked at studied material and found that ninety-six percent of the papers claimed that AR is useful for improving healthcare education. The comprehensive review found that AR helped in all of these areas:

  • decreased amount of practice needed
  • reduced failure rate
  • improved performance accuracy
  • accelerated learning
  • shortened learning curve
  • easier to capture learner’s attention
  • better understanding of spatial relationships
  • provided experiences with new kinds of authentic science inquiry
  • improved assessment of trainees

Tactile, or hands-on education, is ideal especially for those who study and perform technical procedures. If practice makes perfect, let’s practice virtually first and leave the human error in the virtual world.

Clinical Support Tool From The OR To The Battlefield

Due to the real-time and virtual functions of AR smartglasses, they can be used at any time, even during surgery or other procedures. They provide instantaneous information and guidance on complex procedures immediately while the procedure is in progress.  Because of this feature, they can be integrated in the operating room or even on the battle field.

Imagine you have just completed medical training and have to perform a multi-step, complex procedure in the operating room or in a more intense situation like on the frontlines of a battlefield.  Would you be able to accurately place a bore catheter in a soldier hit by an improvised explosive device to release tension pneumothorax while you’re still in a hostile environment? Or would you freeze and forget your training?

A study in Military Medicine looked at using augmented reality glasses as a clinical support tool to reduce the number of preventable deaths of the soldiers serving their country. The study hypothesized that “augmented reality (AR) can fill the void between insufficient training and lack of experience by delivering auditory, visual, or tactile cues for combat medics during not only training, but also in real-time battlefield resuscitations.”

The study confirmed that the trainee medics using the smartglasses had a “higher degree of competency” than the trainees that just relied on lecture material, and they completed the procedure more accurately.

If the use of smartglasses can help save lives, they will be considered an invaluable clinical support tool.

Pain Management & Chronic Pain Treatment

VR has been used in clinical settings on patients, adults and children, undergoing painful medical procedures such as burn treatment, cancer treatment, dental procedures, and other routine medical procedures. Basically, VR environments allow patients to shift their focus away from the acute pain caused by the procedure by allowing the patient to immerse themselves into a different virtual environment as a “distraction.”

In the comprehensive review, Virtual Reality and Pain Management: Current Trends and Future Directions, researchers hypothesized that the use of VR acts as a nonpharmacologic form of analgesia by exerting an array of emotional affective, emotion-based cognitive and attentional processes on the body’s intricate pain modulation system.

Participants who used VR during different procedures reported reduced levels of pain, less general distress, and they attested that they wanted to use VR again if they had to undergo additional painful medical procedures.

Reducing acute pain with VR is proving very effective, but another important area that is still being researched is using VR for chronic pain management. Millions of Americans live with chronic pain from different illnesses, and the use of VR is being investigated to help those individuals have an alternative, nonpharmacological form of treatment. Research using VR for chronic pain management is in its infancy but is also proving to be effective.

One 2016 study using a virtual environment called Cryoslide is just the beginning of research that addresses promising chronic pain management via VR. Researchers found that “Cryoslide can be effectively used as an analgesic intervention for chronic pain management to lessen pain intensity during short-term symptom spikes.”

The positive results of this study have sparked additional interest in this arena. Now, much more research is being conducted to assess implementation of VR for chronic pain management that can be applied in clinical settings and via mobile devices from the comfort of a patient’s own home.

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