virtual reality is revolutionizing medicine and healthcare
When people experience virtual reality for the first time, a common reaction is to start imagining all the different uses the technology might hold. Even within one industry, healthcare, the potential is open-ended. The good thing is that scientists and medical professionals have been at the drawing board for years now, developing and implementing virtual reality in ways that can help them train, diagnose, and treat in myriad situations.
Here are just ten of the use cases that are currently in practice and continually developing as the technology itself develops too.
One treatment for patients with phobias is exposure therapy. In one instance,psychiatrists at the University of Louisville are using VR to help patients deal with fearsof things like flying and claustrophobia. The VR experiences provide for a controlled environment in which patients can face theirfears and even practice coping strategies, as well as breaking patterns of avoidance — allwhile in a setting that’s private, safe, and easily stopped or repeated, depending on thecircumstances.
Treatment for PTSD
Similar to exposure therapy for phobias and anxieties, virtual reality is being put to use tohelp soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A paper from the University ofSouthern California Institute for Creative Technologies cited virtual reality’s use in PTSDtreatment as far back as 1997 when when Georgia Tech released something called VirtualVietnam VR. More recently, clinics and hospitals are using virtual reality simulations of warfare akin toIraq and Afghanistan to help veterans who are, in many ways, continually reliving thetraumatic events they experienced. In a safe and controlled environment, they can learnhow to deal with instances that might otherwise be triggers to behavior that could bedestructive to themselves and others.
For burn victims, pain is an ongoing issue. Doctors are hoping distraction therapy viavirtual reality could help them get a handle on that pain. A VR video game from theUniversity of Washington called SnowWorld, which involves throwing snowballs atpenguins and listening to Paul Simon, could alleviate pain during tasks that can beexcruciating, like wound care or physical therapy, by overwhelming the senses and pain pathways in the brain. A 2011 study the military conducted showed that for soldiers withburn injuries from IED blasts, etc. SnowWorld worked better than morphine.
Training for surgeons usually involves cadavers and a gradual process of assisting moreexperienced doctors before taking over tasks and bigger portions of the surgery. Virtualreality could provide another means of practice, without any risk to real patients. Stanford University, for one, has a surgery simulator that even includes haptic feedbackfor those doing the training. Stanford’s endoscopic sinus surgery simulation uses CTscans from patients to create 3D models for practice, and it’s been in use since 2002.While this technology doesn’t use a head mounted display, the groundwork that’s beendone could further the effectiveness of future virtual simulations.
Phantom limb pain
For people who lose a limb, a common medical issue is phantom limb pain. For example,someone without an arm might feel as though he is clenching his fist very tightly, unableto relax. Frequently, the pain is more sharp than that, even excruciating. Past treatmentshave included mirror therapy, where the patient would look at a mirror image from thelimb they still have, perhaps, and find relief as the brain syncs with the movements of thereal and phantom limbs.
In a similar vein, medical journal Frontiers in Neuroscience published a study last yearon the role virtual reality games may play in helping alleviate phantom limb pain. Itworks like this: sensors pick up on the nerve inputs from the brain. In the game, patientsuse a virtual limb and must complete tasks. It helps them gain some control and learn, forexample, how to relax that painfully clenched fist.
Brain damage assessment and rehabilitation
CyberPsychology & and Behavior published a roundup for virtual reality experiences in use for not only assessing impairments, but also in retreating them. One example has todo with executive function, or “impairments in the sequencing and organization ofbehavior and includes problems with planning,” the paper said. Scientists created avirtual reality experience in which users had to reach the exit of a building using doors ofdifferent colors. It was supposed to be similar to the Wisconsin Card Sorting Task, aneuropsychological test where participants match cards. They’re not told how, only if thematch is right or wrong. “The authors concluded that their test measures the samecognitive functions as the WCST and may prove to be more ecologically valid,”CyberPsychology & Behavior wrote.
Social cognition training for young adults with autism
Professors at the University of Texas, Dallas created a training program to help kids withautism work on social skills. It uses brain imaging and brain wave monitoring, andessentially puts kids in situations like job interviews or blind dates using avatars. Theywork on reading social cues and expressing socially acceptable behavior. The study foundthat after completing the program, participants’ brain scans showed increased activity inareas of the brain tied to social understanding.
One treatment for general anxiety can be meditation. A new app for Oculus Rift calledDEEP aims to help users learn how to take deep, meditative breathes by makingbreathing the only control for the game. The app works with a band worn around thechest that measures breathing. The VR experience is something like being in anunderwater world. Breathing is what gets a user from one place to another. The otherbenefit to the game is that breathing as a controller allows participation from those whomight not be otherwise able to use a joystick or controller.
Opportunities for the disabled
It’s not a new concept — the New York Times ran a story in 1994 describing multiple uses,like a VR experience that let a 5-year-old boy with cerebral palsy take his wheelchair through a grassy field, or another that let 50 children with cancer spend some time”swimming” around an animated fish tank.
In a more recent example, headset maker Fove, undertook a crowdfunding campaign tocreate an app called Eye Play the Piano which would allow kids with physical disabilitiesto play the piano using the headset’s eye tracking technology.
Opportunities for the homebound
There’s a certain amount of fretting which surrounds virtual reality that has to do withwhat will happen when people can go anywhere and do anything through a VR headset maybe they won’t go anywhere in real life in favor of retreating into an ideal virtual world.The thing is, for those who don’t have the ability to get out in the real world, whether theybe disabled or elderly, virtual reality could improve their quality of life when they’dotherwise be confined to a single residence, room, or even a bed.
Last year, Stanford University engineering students created an immersive virtual realityexperience for seniors that let them experience the outside — like a bike ride or a walk onthe beach. SUSIE, or Senior-User Soothing Immersive Experience, incorporates sound,light, wind, and even temperature changes, and used a large wall-mounted display meantto fill the normal field of vision.