Virtual Reality (VR) was born in game but it grew in many areas well beyond mere entertainment. On 12 December, workshop day of this year’s AIMed North America, Fran Ayalasomyajula from Global Healthcare Solutions of HP and Howard Rose, CEO of Firsthand Technology brought together an informative session on the influence of VR on healthcare. Specifically, its adoption, user experience and present challenges.

The Confusing R

“When artificial intelligence (AI) is working; we do not think of it as an entity, but input devices and output of these devices,” said Ayalasomyajula. Likewise, when it comes to VR, clinicians do not take it as a re-launch of an old technology. It is a treatment option; something which worth exploring because it is believed to be low in cost and risks.

To ensure patients are able to transfer their virtual experiences back to reality, other forms of “reality” clinicians tried to explore include augmented reality (AR), cross reality (CR, the use of real object in virtual world and vice versa), and mixed reality (MR, the use of real and virtual objects at once in real time). This, sometimes, had resulted in confusion. Nevertheless, the estimated four billion industry is not projecting to halt any time soon.

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Fran Ayalasomayajula and Howard Rose presenting at the workshop

The more prominent adoptions of VR can be found in patient education, resident training and pain management. Two real-world scenarios were illustrated in a video shown by Ayalasomyajula. The first tells a patient who was about to undergo a surgery. Her surgeon revealed to her, how her operation is going to be done via a VR demonstration. The second tells two radiologists, who combined all the scans from patients into a VR demonstration, so that they have a precise understanding of the affected areas before an operation.

VR believed to activate the mirror neurons in our pre-frontal cortex, “tricking” our brains into perceiving an incident has taken place, resulting in memory retention. VR is growing in popularity among surgeons as they can practice certain procedures over and over with the use of VR, so that a surgical procedure will not appear novel in the actual setting. This will help in confidence building in the long run.

VR enables “embodied medicine”

The same logic applies for pain management. As Rose explained, VR allows “embodied medicine”: to alter the experience of being in a body to improve health and wellness. At the end of the day, it is not practical into thinking that VR eliminates pain but it will help patients to their perceptions of pain. Hopefully, increase their functionality and reduce their dependence on medication after a period of time.

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Breakdown of how VR enables “Embodied Medicine”

Rose added present VR pain management program also integrates bio-sensors to capture patients’ biometrics and interaction with the VR system. This will generate more data to feed into the VR and better monitor patient’s experiences. However, how much VR to “prescribe” becomes an adoption challenge for the technology. There is still a lack of research indicating how invasive should VR be or if patients should receive a balance of drugs and VR therapy.

Rose thought some of these protocol problems are carried over from traditional medicine but an advantage of using new technology is they are highly personalized. Ultimately, it will be the patient’s choice of how long they will like to get involved in VR. In addition, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have a category to classify VR and its related technology. Even if institutions are keen to employ VR in full-fledged, there is a lack of avenue to get official approval.

Still, both speakers are very positive about the prospect of VR in near future. As Rose put it, “VR will disappear as an entity, like internet, it will be instill in everything that are using eventually”.


Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.