Virtual reality (VR) is making a difference on both sides of the doctor-patient relationship. Solutions for patients tend to focus on new treatment options for conditions like chronic pain and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For doctors, virtual reality helps surgeons improve their skills and changes the training process for new doctors.

Healthcare’s slice of the overall virtual reality and augmented reality market was $2.14 billion in 2018, according to a report from BIS Research. The company’s “Global Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality Market in Healthcare – Analysis and Forecasts, 2019-2025” estimates that the market will reach $11.14 billion by 2025.

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BIS Research reports that hardware and software are leading the way with 64.95% and 23.91% of the overall market, respectively. Extended reality–the term Accenture uses to describe “virtual reality, augmented reality, haptics, holograms and an expanding range of immersive tools” — is also showing up in operating rooms. 

This article highlights virtual reality services and products designed to treat patients and train doctors.

Practicing on virtual humans, not actual patients

Doctors and other healthcare providers need a lot of practice to master a standard medical technique, not to mention learn entirely new procedures required by new medical devices. When a surgeon or anaesthesiologist doesn’t receive adequate training or enough practice, patient safety is at risk

Medical Realities wants to use virtual reality modules to modernize physician training for students in medical school and practicing doctors. The healthcare tech company uses a SaaS model to provide immersive training for physicians.The Medical Realities platform covers a variety of training scenarios from a physician’s office to the operating room to medical schools. 

Based in the UK, Medical Realities plans to release its first product for college students in 2020. This course will allow undergraduates to watch and practice Objective Structured Clinical Examinations, which assess competency based on objective testing through direct observation.  

Royal College of Surgeons and Samsung are both working with Medical Realities.

The Medical Realities app works with these VR platforms:

Osso VR is creating VR modules for surgeons, medical device sales teams, and hospital staff. The company’s goals are to improve patient outcomes, increase the adoption of higher-value medical technologies, and democratize global access to the latest surgical techniques.

Founder Justin Barad has a background in software development, a bioengineering degree from UC Berkeley, and an MD from UCLA. The company offers custom content creation, a managed hardware leasing and support program, and performance analytics. Barad’s background is orthopedics, and a validation study sponsored by the company focused on an ankle replacement technique. 

In addition to training surgeons on the correct technique, Osso VR’s simulations guide a doctor through the correct sequence of steps during a surgery. Another Osso VR product measures an individual’s performance and progress as she completes the training modules.

Using VR to treat PTSD

Virtual reality experiences for patients offer a different kind of practice. Virtually Better creates virtual environments as a new way to provide exposure therapy. Psychologists use this method to create a safe environment where individuals can experience things they fear and avoid. Repeated exposure to objects, activities or situations in a safe environment can reduce anxiety in the long term.

The technologists and psychologists at Virtually Better have been developing virtual reality to treat mental health disorders for more than 20 years. The company works with mental health professionals to develop immersive virtual reality experiences to treat phobias, addiction, and even post traumatic stress disorder. Virtually Better has been developing Bravemind in collaboration with the USC Institute of Creative Technologies.

Bravemind has two virtual environments: Iraq and Afghanistan. Therapists can recreate difficult memories at a pace patients can handle. They do this by customizing the experience based on the patient’s history to include explosions, firefights, insurgent attacks, and roadside bombs. The virtual experience includes sound effects such as weapon discharge and radio chatter, as well as vibrations designed to mimic engine rumbling and explosions. It also incorporates a scent machine to create smells appropriate to the setting, such as diesel fuel, garbage, and gunpowder.

Skip Rizzo is the director for medical virtual reality at USC Institute for Creative Technologies. In a video about Bravemind, Rizzo explains how the VR experience helps soldiers confront and process difficult memories.

“By this process of doing this repetitively over time, what you see is a gradual decline in the anxiety and fear response,” Rizzo said. “We’re not erasing memories, but those memories don’t have the same intense painful emotional power that they had before treatment.”

Based on learnings from Bravemind, the Virtually Better and USC teams are developing Strive, a virtual reality experience designed to build resilience and coping methods before soldiers are deployed.

Bravemind and Strive are being used in 50 VA hospitals and university medical centers around the country. Virtually Better works with universities including UCLA, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Houston. 

MindMotion turns rehab into a game

Every year, more than 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke. This costs the United States an estimated $34 billion each year, including healthcare, prescriptions, and missed days of work.

Physical therapy is crucial for recovery, which typically includes motor-skill exercises, mobility training, and range-of-motion therapy. MindMotion products use virtual reality to turn these rehab routines into games. 

MindMotion PRO is intended for hospital settings while MindMotion GO is used in physical therapy and rehab centers. Both have FDA clearance. The platforms include more than 30 neurorehabilitation gamified activities to keep patients engaged in treatment. For example, one module looks a lot like Fruit Ninja with the player holding a sword and swiping at floating fruit.   

Therapists can customize the therapy based on the severity of the patient’s condition, and the platform tracks progress over time. The PRO product can be used at the bedside, allowing patients to start rehab as soon as possible after a stroke. The GO product offers real-time audio and visual feedback so that both therapists and patients can track progress toward recovery. Early intervention improves the chances of a full recovery. 

Rehab exercises are repetitive by nature, so setting the movements in the context of a game may increase patient engagement and adherence to therapy — doing another round of exercises to boost your score is more motivating than working through a task list in the gym.

MindMaze is the parent company of MindMotion and was founded in 2012 as a spinoff from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. MindMaze is headquartered in  Lausanne, with offices in San Francisco, UK, Germany, France, and Romania.

How well does it work?

Researchers and physicians are still gathering information on how well these new treatments and training methods work. However, the demand for more doctors and more affordable healthcare show no signs of slowing down. If VR can help with either problem, it will become a tech investment with a high ROI.

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