Virtual Reality

How virtual reality is changing healthcare?

What is virtual reality and what are its applications?

Virtual reality is a computer-generated simulation in which people can completely immerse themselves through use of a specific sensory equipment, including a headset and controllers.  Thanks to virtual reality, people can be sent into an alternative world within an artificial three-dimensional environment. It offers an artificial experience with no sense of the real world. Virtual reality can be applied in many fields:

– Entertainment, with the creation of a new kind of video games; 

– Education, to train and teach military, doctors and surgeons;

– Business, where it is used for virtual meetings.

What is the difference between Virtual reality and Augmented reality?

Despite their increasing popularity, virtual reality and augmented reality are still often thought to be the same technology. While they share similarities, they are differentiated by their user experience, the devices they require to function, and their ultimate goal. 

Virtual reality enables the creation of a completely artificial environment enriched with images and sounds in which users are fully immersed. These computer-generated simulations can make any kind of visuals come true for the users through the use of special equipment such as Oculus Quest or Valve Index. With the added use of controllers, users can even interact with this new environment. 

On the other hand, augmented reality blends computer-generated virtual elements into the real world. It combines the physical world and the virtual world thanks to a 2D or 3D virtual overlay, which is projected into the real world either through a smartphone camera or smart glasses. The goal of augmented reality is to make the virtual world and the physical world interact together, which is the case for example with the app Pokémon Go.

To summarize, the main differences between virtual reality and augmented reality are:

Virtual realityAugmented reality
– Real world is replaced by computer-generated simulations that create an alternative world- Users are not in control of their environment- Requires a headset and controllers plugged into a computer for an immersive and interactive experience– Virtual elements are added as overlays into the real world- Users remain in control of their environment and their presence in it- Only requires a smartphone or smart glasses 

What are the benefits of Virtual Reality?

As it has previously been established, virtual reality is used in a wide variety of fields, such as entertainment, services, medicine, education, military, etc. The increasing use of virtual reality is explained by its ability to immerse users in a realistic yet completely safe environment. For this reason, the healthcare industry is an avid user of this technology. Indeed, healthcare companies and institutions primarily use virtual reality for training purposes in the field of surgery, where it allows healthcare professionals to be trained in certain medical procedures in a consequence-free learning environment. With virtual reality, they can practice and make mistakes without risking doing any harm to real patients.

Virtual reality also provides an innovative, engaging and immersive experience, resulting in increased comprehension and a better retention of the intended message. Apart from all of the benefits mentioned above, virtual reality also has the advantage of allowing a remote use. 

To conclude, the benefits of virtual reality include:

  • Realistic scenarios
  • Quick retention and recall of the intended message
  • Can be done remotely, saving costs
  • Simplifies complex concepts 
  • Innovative and enjoyable

What is the role of virtual reality simulations in healthcare?

From helping to develop new life-saving techniques to training our future doctors, virtual reality offers a multitude of applications in the field of healthcare, whether it be for professionals or consumers.

Virtual reality and mental health

Virtual reality’s ability to transport an individual into an alternative world is particularly useful in the creation of powerful simulations of the scenarios in which psychological difficulties occur. Situations that are impossible to recreate in real life can be simulated virtually, which can be used to treat patients with mental issues – such as those suffering from PTSD – in a safe and controlled environment.

One well-known use of virtual reality in therapy called Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) is widely used in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health related disorders. By using VRET, a person enters a re-enactment of a traumatic event in an attempt to come to terms with it and heal. Similarly, it has also been used to treat phobias, depression, anxiety and other serious mental illnesses.

For instance, VRET is widely adopted and used by the military in the US and the UK for the treatment of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and who need help readjusting to normal life situations.

Virtual reality in medical training

Due to the immersive and interactive nature of virtual reality, a significant number of medical students, doctors, surgeons and dentists use virtual reality to learn, practise and understand complex biomedical and scientific concepts. Future doctors and surgeons use this technology to develop certain skills in a computer-generated simulation, so that they can assess their results and apply these new skills later on real patients. 

In order to do so, they wear a virtual reality headset and a data glove that enables them to perform a surgical procedure via manipulation in a three-dimensional space.

Therefore, with the help of virtual reality, healthcare professionals can develop new skills by practising on virtual patients, as it allows them to learn in a consequence-free environment. 

Virtual reality as a tool to educate patients and raise disease awareness

As mentioned above, virtual reality not only plays a vital role in training future doctors and surgeons, it is also useful to educate patients in medical and health information.

Indeed, virtual reality allows patients to be taken through their surgical plan by virtually stepping into a patient-specific 360° VR reconstruction of their anatomy and pathology. This process leads to an enhanced understanding of the treatment and a higher patient satisfaction.

Additionally, virtual reality also plays a pivotal role in raising disease awareness. For instance, in order to raise awareness about Parkinson`s disease, the pharmaceutical research and development firm AbbVie created a virtual reality experience that showcased the daily struggles of patients suffering from the disease. The experience was demo-ed at a pharmaceutical trade show where people could put on a headset and experience first-hand the reality of a person suffering from Parkinson’s as they navigated a virtual supermarket.  

Virtual reality in pain management and physical therapy

A study conducted by the University of Washington Seattle and the UW Harborview Burn Centre has proven that virtual reality`s healing capabilities is not just limited to psychological issues; but is also effective for pain management & physical treatment. The study showed that a full VR immersion acted as a distraction and subsequently reduced pain levels for the patients undergoing physical therapy after a skin graft. The efficiency of VR has also been demonstrated in speeding up recovery time. Allowing patients to do their prescribed daily exercises in a virtual environment makes the activity more enjoyable, keeps them focused, and helps them keep their spirits up during what can be a long recovery period.

How will virtual reality change the future?

With an increasing adoption and acceptance of virtual reality in various fields such as services, medicine, armed forces, education, entertainment, etc., virtual reality is one of the technologies with the highest potential for growth.

Some of the prospects for virtual reality include:

  • According to International data corporation research, (IDC) forecast, investments in virtual reality and augmented reality will multiply by 21-fold, reaching 15.5 billion euros by 2022.
  • According to MarketsandMarkets, the projected growth for AR and VR in the healthcare industry is expected to have a combined annual growth of 30.7% by 2025
  • According to a report by valuates, the VR market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 63.3% by 2025, forecasting it to reach a revenue of 571$ billion by 2025
  • According to Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research, there will be an increased use of VR technology in the consumer applications including video games, live events, and video entertainment in the coming 9 years, gradually leading to $18.9 billion with video games sector; while enterprise categories led by healthcare at $5.1 billion, engineering, real estate, retail, military, and education will attract $16.1 billion in market value.

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