For anyone involved in surgery, medical training and patient care it is clear that virtual reality has become a part of the medical universe and that this is only the beginning. Already virtual reality and augmented reality in Healthcare is an almost one billion dollar market, having a big impact on many professionals and patients. Still medical VR is a work in progress with many clear and unclear bumps along the road.
VR in healthcare focuses on three major aspects: professional, training and patients. What is happening and what is to be expected? That is the central question on the Healthcare Symposium of the VR Days Europe 2017.
One of many promising elements XR brings to the medical field is that of 3D models that surgeons can use to prepare and plan operations. The models are created by merging MRI’s, CAT-scans and ultrasounds. Dr. Gary Steinberg, Stanford University’s head of neurosurgery, says he is now able to figure out how best to approach a tumor and practice treating it, ‘so that when I get into the operation, it’s as if I’ve been there before’. Doctors at Stanford Health Care are using virtual reality technology during brain surgery as a visual tool and they use it to train future neurosurgeons. The next step is surgeons manipulating robotic equipment and operating remotely.
Cambridge University’s research lab is working on rendering 3D VR treatment for cancer. Using VR they are able to study cancer tumors in 3D in order to come up with better treatments. And Israeli startup Augmedics currently works on augmented reality headsets for surgeons performing spinal surgery.
Already about six out of ten physicians in the US use virtual reality technology to gain expertise for surgical techniques. Advantages are that future surgeons gain more experience — which improves the time required to perform procedures, with less errors — and, perhaps more importantly, that it improves patients outcome considerably.
Todays training can now happen in a VR operating room — check out work by 3D Systems, SimX, ORamaVR and Osso VR — but a combination of real and simulation is also an option, according to Darryl S. Weiman, professor of Surgery at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, where they are ‘finishing a new building devoted totally to simulation’. Simulated operations offer the possibility to practice — without any possible harmful consequences for the patients health and without burdening the fast paced system where patients have to be treated efficiently.
Where training or preparations might be virtual, the tools used don’t have to be: for instance ImmersiveTouch offers equipment that provides force feedback. For a surgeon using this and other available tools it would mean that he or she not only virtually sees the broken bone to work on, but that it will also be highlighted. Plus the surgeon will feel it when touching it and can become aware of the sensitive tissue right behind it, something that could be impossible in real life.
Isobar’s Common Ground VR aims to simulate what it must be like to have a visual disability, like macular degeneration or glaucoma. ‘Playing this game can help not only increase empathy but also help determine what assistance and treatments are needed’, says Leigh Christie, manager of Isobar NowLab Americas. Kognito also has a serious game. With it you can talk to a virtual child about substance abuse or speak with someone in psychological distress.
In Singapore the company Side Effects Asia Pacific is working on VR technology for advanced clinical training. In 3D it simulates medical emergency scenarios to train medical students in highly stressful, decision-making scenarios. BreakAway games, based in the US, has vHealthCare, which teaches professional how to respond to catastrophic incidents.
XR is being used to treat patients. Check out to see who is doing what: The company MindMaze uses VR and AR to treat Parkinsons patients, amputees and stroke victims. Their VR solutions seek to help these patients to train their brain to stimulate limb movements. Vivid Vision is using VR to treat various ophthalmologic conditions such as strabismus, amblyopia and convergence disorders. US company Brain Power helps patients with autism. A demo by Brain Power’s CMO psychiatrist Dr. Arshya Vahbzadeh showed a young child making eye contact with his mother, recognizing her emotions and with that bringing his mother to tears: never before she was able to make eye contact in this way with her child. For military veterans VR has shown to reduce PTSD symptoms among those didn’t respond to traditional forms of exposure therapy.
In a study VR was able to reduce, for the majority of participants, their fear of heights. Birmingham University’s VR research team, led by founding member of the XR Alliance Bob Stone, is looking into the use of VR in different areas: for restorative therapy, for lower limb rehabilitation and for lung/diaphragm recovery support for patients in intensive care.
Step by step XR is entering the world of patients in ways that are both fun and serious. Stroke and brain-injury patients for instance are using VR therapy during rehabilitation to regain motor and cognitive skills. Other examples include using VR to distract a patient — for instance by throwing virtual snowballs at virtual snowmen — which can be effective for pain relief and pain management. The company Applied VR is looking into ways alleviating pain via interactive games and relaxing landscapes. Dr. Brennan Spiegel is very active using VR and writes: ‘We preliminary found a 24% reduction in pain after only ten minutes of using a special visualization called Pain RelieVR, created by AppliedVR and administered via Samsung Gear goggles.’
Also for patients, but not intended as medical therapy or treatment, is a tool made by Human XR. Their VR experience is designed to ‘support well-being by promoting mental acuity and physical fitness in a way that is engaging and inspiring’. The company is moving ahead and is developing Tommy, ‘a friendly little boy who will instruct you, guide you and comfort you should you need it’. At CES’s Digital Health Summit Dr. Spiegel from Cedars-Sinai showed a demonstration in which a patient, in the hospital already for months, virtually was able to go home via a live-streaming 360 camera and a mobile VR headset. Dr. Spiegel writes: ‘We believe that VR has potential to alleviate negative aspects of hospitalization by providing multi-sensory information and allowing patients to ‘escape’ to pleasant locations and realities.’
Stanford Children’s Health developed a 3D model of the heart for patient education. And The Body VR is an application with which patients can walk through their own anatomy and cells.