VR Considerations in the Post-Pandemic World - Healthcare

SparkAmpLab Editorial Team
July 14, 2021
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With many things moved to a virtual format due to the recent pandemic, virtual reality (VR) technology has been allowed to thrive, and has proved to be a useful contribution to several industries. Take the healthcare industry for example – the industry looked to the most during these trying times – which has utilised VR to aid certain processes. 

As principal in Deloitte’s Health Care practice Jennifer Radin best puts it, “if you consider the future is healthcare being delivered anywhere the individual is, there are so many use cases for VR and AR technology.” 

Verified Market Research even found that in 2020, VR in the healthcare market stood at a value of $2.076 billion, and is predicted to grow to $42.84 billion in 2028 - that is a huge leap within just under a decade, and proves the venture to be a lucrative one. 

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Below are five ways in which VR has been adopted by the healthcare industry that have been useful and will continue to be post-pandemic.

VR helping patients have a better understanding of their treatment 

Many times, members of the general public get confused when talking to their doctors, due to all the jargon and lack of medical knowledge. However, Brainlab and Magic Leap have collaborated to create Mixed Reality (MR) tools for surgeries, partnering with GenesisCare UK, a British healthcare provider, to roll these out for consumer use.

Brainlab Mixed Reality Press Image

These tools have changed the way in which doctors address treatment methods to patients for the better. Patients are able to have a comprehensive visualization accompanying doctors’ descriptions, lessening the chance of information being lost in translation. With this greater understanding among patients of their medical case and knowing what kind of treatment is being planned for them (and its potential results), they are empowered and the prior confusion can be alleviated, states GenesisCare consultant neurosurgeon Puneet Plaha.

Another way in which the MR tools developed are being used by GenesisCareUK is during collaborations between doctors to discuss patient cases. Although this is currently mainly focused on neuro-oncology, one should not rule out the possibility of this being extended beyond this medical concentration.

MAGES Studio’s Bliss: Curbing surgical stress

We’ve seen solutions to help healthcare workers’ stress, dementia patients, but what about the patients in hospitals themselves? MAGES Studio’s Bliss aims to utilise what is known as ‘mindfulness VR’ to reduce patient anxiety, both pre- and post-operation.

Created as part of the National Health Tech Challenge in Singapore in 2018, Bliss’ prototype came up in the top 20 solutions of the challenge. Presented was a problem statement from Singapore General Hospital, with a focus on the colorectal cancer unit - patients who were coming in for day surgeries had the tendency to get nervous, due to the unfamiliarity of the procedure. 

Bliss’ use would also be convenient, as it came in the form of a mobile application. No fancy headset would be required, unlike plenty of other VR solutions. Think along the lines of Google Cardboard, which would mean this solution is more cost effective.

Unfortunately, despite a well-received pilot scheme, during which almost everyone who participated attested to the solution’s effectiveness, MAGES Studio couldn’t proceed further with Bliss due to two major factors. There was a lack of funding, as well as having to overcome the hurdle of clinical trials (since Bliss involves direct interaction with patients). Nonetheless, several other hospitals have approached the studio to find ways to bring Bliss into the wards, hoping to have this solution at the forefront of ensuring patients’ wellbeing, so Bliss’ future is still bright going forth. 

Like the previously mentioned study on VR used for COVID-19 patients, Bliss is one example of a VR solution that has the potential to go much further, especially in current circumstances. It seems like hospitals are coming onboard with the solution, which is a good step forward.

VR aiding medical and healthcare training and education

With the pandemic came online learning for many students, and this has been no different within healthcare – except theirs takes online learning to the next level with VR technology. Existing VR learning methods were already observed in universities like New York University (NYU) pre-pandemic, with their Grossman School of Medicine integrating this into their curriculum. As stated on their page, they believe that providing students the opportunity to learn through VR “enables more immersive, engaging, and experiential learning”. 

This sentiment is likely shared by others in the field, as the pandemic has increased the usage of VR technology. Cedars-Sinai has been one such big adopter of VR into its community, working with several companies including Virti.

Virti Device for healthcare use, via Virti’s website
Virti Device for healthcare use, via Virti’s website

Of course, with the ongoing pandemic, off-duty medical staff are likely not to be allowed in hospitals and medical centres to prevent infection. Adapting to this restriction, the Cedars-Sinai Women’s Guild Simulation Center sent VR headsets to graduating nurses, allowing them to continue training remotely in their own homes. This decision was also meant to bring long term benefit, to prevent delays and running shortages of trained nurses in the future – which might have happened should all training have been postponed till face-to-face interaction could resume. 

A benefit to using VR tech for this purpose is that training can easily resume outside of the usual medical spaces, but with similar effectiveness as with in-person ones. It could also be said that VR makes the learning process much less intimidating, since the training staff are not practising in the real world yet and mistakes would not lead to consequences in such.

Also, as medical resources and staff were strained during peak times, many retired/off-duty nurses and doctors had to constantly be brought in - and it was for this that VR was used in some instances to retrain them to be ready to come in. On top of this, VR programs were also created to instruct staff how to remove PPE properly and safely, which goes without saying is absolutely crucial knowledge nowadays.

If you were having any doubts given that this is only one case study in which VR has been used in healthcare training and education, perhaps this study can convince you otherwise. The study concluded that participants trained to conduct laparoscopic cholecystectomy with VR were less likely to cause errors than those who trained without, further supporting the use of VR in the training and education sector of the healthcare industry.

Using VR to help those with mental health issues 

Mental health is also something that VR is being used to help with. Although still only available on a small scale, it shows promising results thus far. 

This comes at a time when mental health has become the forefront of many conversations, and justifiably too. Medical staff have been working around the clock to cope with pandemic patients, resulting in exhaustion across the board, and the severity of the situation was evaluated through a survey conducted by Mental Health America: 93% of healthcare workers responded saying that they experienced stress within the past year.

To find a way to provide widespread mental health support to such workers without having to increase human labour, Johns Hopkins Medicine worked with BehaVR on Centered VR – a VR program meant to help users practice mindfulness and be rid of work-induced stress. The program is presented in a digestible format as well, with six 20-minute sessions focusing on teaching users coping skills.

BehaVR’s CenteredVR headset, via product’s website

According to Hoag’s senior vice president Rick Martin, Ed.D, MSN, RN, the program at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Orange County has received good feedback overall from the nurses who have signed on to use it.

Even among hospitalised COVID-19 patients, VR could prove useful in reducing challenges faced, as discovered in a study about the use of virtual reality in the inpatient rehabilitation of COVID-19 patients. High patient satisfaction scores of 12/13 were recorded, with the intention of VR being used for conditions arising from hospital treatment/recovery like anxiety, depression and social isolation. However, the study notes that the participant pool is limited and further work should be conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of this on a much larger scale.

Aiding Dementia Patients, with Singapore’s Mind Palace

Reminisce therapy has been used to help dementia patients recollect past memories, in an effort to put them at ease and reduce their stress levels that usually come with the condition. However, Singapore’s Mind Palace puts a VR spin on reminisce therapy, allowing patients in nursing homes to travel freely virtually (under the sub-project Mind Tours), which they would not otherwise be able to, as well as looking back on family memories.

Mind Palace's founder Eugene Soh accompanying a nursing home resident in her VR experience
Mind Palace's founder Eugene Soh accompanying a nursing home resident in her VR experience

How is travel footage gathered for the users? In an interview with founder Eugene Soh (who also runs DUDE Studios), he shares that they have done research with the patients in homes to test what footage works and is received well. One such finding? That “most seniors want to visit the Great Wall of China and that their favourite place in Singapore is Chinatown”. Thus, making sure to integrate this into the software.

Before the pandemic in 2019, Soh mentions that hygiene was already an issue, since the headsets were constantly being used and shared among the elderly in the nursing care homes. While they were sanitized after every use, paired with the use of hygiene masks, he states and recognises that “there's only so much you can clean with such an intimate literally in-your-face device”. Thus, Mind Palace’s immersive rooms were born. No headsets required, just a space for the immersive screens and the person to sit in. Perfectly safe and hygienic for our current circumstances.

The idea could have been said to truly come to fruition when Eugene, part of a team of 4, participated in a Hackathon in 2018 and won first place with a project focusing on a “Virtual Reality experience for dementia patients to immerse themselves in an environment of familiarity”

So far, reception has seemed more than favourable, and it would be exciting to see Mind Palace’s growth within the next few years, and perhaps change the landscape of dementia aid. During an isolating time like the ongoing pandemic, reaching these patients through VR and making them feel less alone could be crucial to their overall wellbeing.

Post-pandemic considerations for the healthcare industry

As VR technology gets increasingly advanced and adopted by more organizations, their contributions to the healthcare industry can increase. VR usage for mental health was already somewhat practised before the pandemic, though the pandemic has meant that VR has been studied to see its adaptability in other areas, not limited to patient usage only. Once the pandemic has run its course, expect to see VR being used more often to aid mental health.

For other uses, the above has shown that VR can prove to be more useful than traditional methods, and it is for this reason that they can definitely be used and integrated post-pandemic to improve the quality of provisions. This view was echoed by William Sheahan, director of MedStar Simulation Training & Education Lab in Washington D.C, with regard to using VR for training. Providing an alternative method of content delivery, VR shouldn’t (and likely wouldn’t) be phased out post-pandemic, as this would mean giving up the benefits it has brought. 

It is worth noting that despite all this, encouraging consumer use of healthcare VR would be an issue. While it seems simple enough to ask patients to make use of VR solutions that can benefit them, it would be a challenge for certain patients, such as those of the older generation, to adapt to such advanced, unfamiliar technology, as noted by Vrinda Khanna from MAGES Studio. Scalability would also be hindered by hospitals and companies usually working in silos, and the VR programs may not be shared between hospitals or even departments. Otherwise, Khanna also recognises that there is indeed high growth potential for VR’s use in other areas like healthcare education and training in hospitals and other healthcare settings.

VR has made significant contributions to the healthcare industry, heightened during the pandemic, and opened doors to new possibilities to make different sectors of healthcare more accessible and more efficient. As current software is being improved on and new software is being developed, VR usage seems to be heading to more widespread uptake. 

Related Reading: A Look at the Present and Future of AR Devices (Smartglasses, Watches, and more)

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