Virtual reality, with its ability to fully immerse the user in a simulated environment, is a natural fit for medicine. Patients and doctors alike are thankful for anything that will increase a medical procedure’s chance of success, and the industry is one area where neither expertise nor resources are in short supply. In the US alone, the healthcare exceeded $3.24 trillion in 2015. Health is one thing everyone takes very seriously and nobody has ever argued that skimping on medical treatment is a good idea.
As such, healthcare is leading the charge to widespread adoption of virtual reality. As VR, as well as mixed reality and augmented reality, continue to find a place in the mainstream public consciousness, more and more healthcare applications are developed all the time. There is a great deal of money to be made helping the sick, and it’s for a good cause, and so the top developers and innovators in technology are flocking to the industry.
There are a number of ways the technology can be used to aid the healer’s craft, from training to surgery. Here are some of the most fascinating things that are happening in the space.
More so than a teleconference or video feed, virtual reality has the unique ability to transport users to another place. Although communications across vast geographical distances have been available for years in the form of video conferencing and other such technologies, VR presents a way for people to truly interact with places far away.
In the medical field, “interact” often means “treat” or even “operate.” Surgery is a highly specialized skill, and one of the great tragedies of modern healthcare is the lost lives that could have been saved if only the patient had had access to a better surgeon.
With virtual reality, the greatest surgical specialists can treat patients all over the world, without ever stepping onto a plane. At the Centre for Surgical Invention & Innovation (CSii), Dr. Mehran Anvari became one of the very first surgeons to perform an operation with the use of a remote-controlled robot. Although Dr. Ahvari used a standard computer screen, virtual reality offers the opportunity to make this type of remote surgery even more effective. With the use of a head-mounted display and haptic gloves, a surgeon could virtually transport themselves to an operating room thousands of miles away, able to use their natural skills and senses to save lives. It seems only a matter of time before the best surgeons are able to operate all over the world without ever leaving their hospital.
One area where surgeons are already plying their trade with the use of virtual reality is in training. Numerous universities, including Dartmouth and Stanford, are leveraging the new technology both for students to learn and for working professionals to keep their skills sharp.
The work being done at the Standard Salisbury Robotics Lab is particularly fascinating. The researchers are utilizing haptic feedback and even “artificial patients” to help medical professionals learn. Their surgical simulation environment includes a physical model of a patient, wired to a computer simulation with a wide array of sensors. Participants in the exercise use endoscopic cameras and other tools of modern healthcare to diagnose and treat the model, and are able to see the same results on their instruments as they would if treating a real person. According to Stanford, they “experience realistic sights, sounds, and forces like they are actually in the operating room.” Their goal is to create an effective “dry run” training exercise, indistinguishable from reality. After all, what patient wants to be a surgeon’s first?
One firm is leveraging VR to bring healthcare learning to the masses. Startup Medical Realities hosted the first worldwide virtual reality livestream of a surgery earlier this year, and about 50,000 people watched the event on their desktops, phones, and Gear VR head-mounted displays.
This level of immersion into an actual surgery, accessible to anyone around the world, was unprecedented. The event was a success, and thankfully so was the operation itself. Medical Realities plans to host many more in months and years to come. Their hope is to allow medical professionals in all walks of life to learn from the best surgeons and doctors by literally looking through their eyes.
Their next project, The Virtual Surgeon, is a series of virtual experiences recorded from the perspective of a consultant surgeon in an actual operating theater. Unlike the first streamed events, in which a 360° camera was mounted on a table next to the procedure, the camera in The Virtual Surgeon is literally attached to the head of one of the men performing the surgery.
One of the most creative, innovative, and surprising uses of virtual reality in healthcare is in the treatment of phantom limb pain, or PLP. Phantom limb pain is a common syndrome suffered by amputees. Essentially, the brain has difficulty “letting go” of the severed limb. Patients suffering from the syndrome typically feel as though they are clenching the muscles, fingers, or toes of the severed limb. They are unable to “relax” the missing digits, and can experience very severe, often debilitating, pain.
An article published in the industry journal Frontiers in Neuroscience detailed a study performed with the help of a phantom limb pain patient. The doctors performing the study constructed a virtual environment in which the patient had the use of his missing arm, and could use it to perform simple tasks like picking up and moving small objects. With the help of myoelectric sensors connected to the stump of the missing limb, the patient could control the virtual arm with brain impulses, exactly as the brain controls limbs in the real world. To put it more simply, he controlled a virtual arm with his mind. Given the ability to maneuver his missing arm in the virtual world, his mind was able to “relax” the muscles that no longer exist in the real world.
The study also experimented with augmented reality, in which the patient wore an AR headset that would superimpose his missing limb. Both treatments were found to be effective in alleviating the symptoms and recurrence of PLP. After 10 weeks of sessions, the patient reported a significant decrease in pain, including periods in which symptoms completely disappeared.
As virtual reality continues its rise to prominence in the tech world, more and more stunning applications in the healthcare field will appear. We are at the very beginnings of a technological revolution, and as ever, medicine is one of the industries that will reap the most dramatic benefits.