Sarah Liu, Newport High School, Bellevue, Washington, USA
Traditionally, virtual reality (VR) technology has primarily influenced the gaming and entertainment industry through its remarkable ability to generate lifelike simulations. However, VR holds tremendous potential for healthcare as well. In recent years, the technology has gained recognition for its use in medical training with simulation-based learning and exploration as well as in therapy, where it has demonstrated efficacy in alleviating phobias and anxiety disorders. Furthermore, VR technology has shown potential for treating neurological conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and Alzheimer's not only in improving the quality of life for those affected but also promoting empathy among those without such conditions. With ongoing advancements in VR technology, the prospects of virtual reality in medicine are limitless as it continues to bridge a connection between technology, engineering, science, and medicine.
Since the progressive development of virtual reality (VR), simulation technology has taken the world by storm. How exactly does VR work? In short, the experience is achieved by a simple headset consisting of two separate, high-resolution monitors, which provide independent images for each eye. This stereoscopic 360VR system allows for the creation of stereoscopic graphics, or put more simply, depth perception (VRTL Academy, 2019). Another major feature of VR is motion controllers that allow users to physically interact with the virtual environment with little to no restrictions.
It is evident that a majority of VR applications have been seen in Esports (competitive, organized video gaming), as gamers are infatuated with the highly immersive gaming experience that VR offers. However, the applications of simulation technology do not end with the gaming industry. In recent years, the use of VR in healthcare has risen drastically. The healthcare VR market is projected to grow from $477.2 million in 2018 to $4.6 billion in 2025 (Statistia Search Department, 2021) (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Global healthcare virtual reality market forecast in 2018 and 2025, by region (Statista Search Department, 2019).
Perhaps the most popular uses of VR in healthcare have been in medical training and mental health treatment. VR technology can create any medical simulation for students to work with. Visualizing the interior of a human body as opposed to a traditional cadaver or experiencing surgical procedures first-hand, can all be achieved with great detail and stunning quality with VR. The overall performance of VR-trained surgeons is boosted by 230% compared to traditional training practices, signifying that VR simulations are a significantly superior method of training compared to many traditional practices (Blumstein, 2019; American Board of Internal Medicine [ABIM], 2022).
VR has been known to also aid in addiction recovery and rehabilitation therapy. Recent studies have shown that immersive VR experiences are highly effective in distracting users with calming games and entertainment. For instance, in a study, 100% of patients undergoing surgery reported their overall hospital experience was more pleasant with VR, while 94% said they felt more relaxed and 80% said they felt less pain after using the headset (St. George’s University, 2019). VR interventions effectively reduce high beta-frequency brain waves, which are commonly associated with significant stress, paranoia, and anxiety, to low beta-frequency waves, usually associated with quiet, focused, introverted concentration (Abhang, Gawali, & Mehrotra, 2016). Studies have also noted significant improvements in certain regions of the brain associated with PTSD and anxiety, such as the amygdala, subcallosal gyrus, lateral prefrontal cortex, as well as the anterior cingulate cortex (Gonçalves et al., 2012).
Additionally, VR has also been recently incorporated into neurological rehabilitation. Recent years have seen several reputable studies conclude VR simulations are significantly effective in the cognitive diagnosis of neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's (Liu et al., 2019). VR has been used to study spatial memory deficits in aMCI (Amnestic Mild Cognitive Impairment, a precursor to Alzheimer’s) patients, and shows promise in predicting the transition from aMCI to Alzheimer's (Weniger et al., 2011). A study from the UK reported that VR sessions helped advanced dementia patients recall old memories, resulting in reduced anxiety, depression, and hostility (Tabbaa et al., 2019). As a result, several VR companies dedicated to senior care have surfaced. Some aim to provide therapeutic care for the elderly while others, such as A Walk Through Dementia, are designed to spread empathy for Alzheimer's patients.
Along with Alzheimer's, VR has also been used in helping those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by improving social skills and cognition. A study noted that there were increases in verbal and non-verbal recognition, theory of mind, and conversational skills after several VR training sessions, suggesting high efficacy of VR technology (Kandalaft et al., 2012). Participants mentioned that the training prepared them to handle social situations such as job interviews, dating, public speaking, and more (University of Texas at Dallas, 2014). VR has also been used to study autism-related phobias, as traditional cognitive behavioral therapy has shown to be difficult for those with autism. For example, 25% of participants with ASD in a study initially experienced an alleviation of their phobia just two weeks after VR intervention, later increasing to 38% after six months (Maskey et al.,2019). Similar to spreading empathy for Alzheimer's, VR has also aided in spreading awareness for ASD. Autism art projects such as Beholder recreate how autistic people perceive the world (Rogers, 2019).
What does the future of VR tech in medicine hold? It is expected that simulation technology will become more widely adopted and the usage of VR will become increasingly normalized in healthcare. The rise of artificial intelligence provides an opportunity to merge with VR and create hyper-realistic simulations for medical training.
Despite the promising outlook for virtual reality, it remains a relatively new and innovative technology. Currently, the leading issue with VR by far has been the physical symptoms that come with prolonged usage. Headaches, nausea, and eyestrain are common side effects that can significantly hinder a user’s experience (LaMotte, 2017). For an average user, these side effects are not any cause for concern. However, for healthcare professionals, such as surgeons, who may need to use VR for extended periods of time, the issue is of greater importance.
Perhaps developers will overcome this barrier in years to come, however, at present, let us appreciate the innovative flexibility of virtual reality technology, transforming the way health professionals treat patients. By foraging significant impacts in medical training, neurological rehabilitation, and psychological therapy, VR technology continues to shatter our highest expectations, raising the bar that much higher for new technologies in years to come.