Virtual Reality

How could VR improve the health and care sectors?

During the 1990s, Virtual Reality was emerging as one of the leading areas of development within the technological sector. As exciting new VR technology, including head-mounted displays and data gloves, were introduced in the marketplace, the fascination around Virtual Reality greatly increased public interest in the area. Unfortunately, as predictions and promises of VR’s breakthrough failed to materialise, public interest soon decreased.

However, as public interest faded, researchers continued to develop VR applications such as combat simulations for the military, virtual environments for construction and engineering projects, safe environments for evaluating potentially harmful new products, 3D avatars for clothes designers ... and, of course, Virtual Reality games.


How VR can be implemented in the healthcare sector

The gamification of Virtual Reality has seen some interesting advances; it has become possible to enjoy the challenge of performing complex surgery on a portable device just for fun. When it comes to the medical world, there is, however, a much more serious side to Virtual Reality.  

For example, Virtual Reality can first be used as a diagnostic tool either by itself or in conjunction with other methods such as X-rays, MRI scans and blood tests.

Once an appropriate course of surgical action has been decided on, a much less traumatic and invasive surgical procedure can be performed with the aid of robotic surgery, resulting in much less scarring as well as a faster recovery time.

One such robotic surgery device is the NYU Langone medical centre’s computer-assisted surgical system, the da Vinci Si. It comprises a three-armed tower positioned over the patient, capable of wielding any kind of surgical instruments, with a fourth arm holding 3d cameras.

These cameras provide the surgeon, seated at the da Vinci Si's console, with a high-definition view of the procedure while controlling those arms.

An additional console can permit another surgeon - perhaps from a different specialty - to assist with a surgical procedure, but the biggest advantage in a dual-console system is the potential to train new surgeons to use that system faster and more efficiently than traditional training methods.

There are, of course, many other types of surgical robots - from simple ones which merely manoeuvre endoscopes in response to voice controls, to telesurgery units where the surgeon can use VR at a console to control an operation far from the theatre itself.


The benefits VR could give to healthcare staff and users

It's not just in a one-to-one situation where Virtual Reality comes into its own in the medical world.  In 2014, 13,000 surgical students, healthcare professionals and even members of the general public - in over a hundred countries - watched London consultant surgeon Shafi Ahmed remove cancerous tissue from the liver and bowel of a patient.

It was streamed live online using Google Glass, and while watching the procedure medical students could ask questions which were answered almost instantly.

Two years later, Ahmed live-streamed another surgical procedure, this time using many specialist cameras positioned above the patient, allowing viewers to observe the operation from any angle they wished.

The technology involved would allow trainees and surgeons around the world to connect and train remotely.

"It showcases Virtual Reality for what it should be used for,” Ahmed said, “Education”.


The benefits VR could give to patients

Virtual Reality isn't just limited to surgical procedures; a student at Nottingham Trent University has created software to help people overcome their speech impediments using VR.

This method of exposure therapy uses VR which challenges users to confront their social anxieties in Virtual Reality and results in improvements in their speech fluency.

Professional therapists in other fields are also enjoying success in defeating phobias with Virtual Reality exposure therapy. This combines cognitive behaviour therapy with controlled exposure to the phobia in a realistic - but totally safe - virtual environment.

Additionally, The Walk Again Project at Duke University in North Carolina helped eight paraplegics re-establish a link between their minds and their bodies, in an attempt to regain a certain amount of the sensation and muscle control that they’d previously lost.

This was initially accomplished with VR headsets, giving the patients the view of a virtual football field which they were asked to imagine themselves walking around.

From there, the patients were moved into exoskeleton suits which activated when they thought about walking … and eventually communications developed between their brains and their legs to allow them to regain overall muscle control. 


With low-cost VR equipment, controllable, repeatable scenarios and instant feedback, we have a powerful new teaching tool that can help train the healthcare workforce of the future, as well as improving the care experience for patients across the healthcare board.

Virtual Reality, if implemented correctly, certainly has the potential to change the healthcare landscape for the better, for both patients and healthcare professionals.

Simon Carreck

Simon Carreck worked for over a decade at St Mary's Hospital in London before starting a new career as a freelance writer, currently specialising in health supplements.