How VR is changing healthcare
March 18th, 2023

VR is set to transform healthcare in a myriad of applications designed to improve treatments and outcomes for patients in areas as diverse as mental health, pain management, cognitive and physical rehabilitation, and surgery.

In the area of mental health, VR is being used to target issues of trauma, PTSD, and anxiety, through virtual reality exposure therapy. The aim is to diminish the intensity of a patient’s stress response to memories, thoughts, or situations which generate fear or anxiety. This could include situations such as exposure to roads after a road traffic accident, or combat scenarios which can be difficult to replicate, or even fear of heights. The treatment can often have a dramatic effect and has potential to be effective in treating other mental health issues such as phobias or depression.

In the area of pain reduction, the use of VR has proved significant. Studies suggest it can be effective as a complementary supplement or alternative non-pharmacologic analgesic in a range of pain-inducing procedures and in the management of chronic pain including labour. In fact, brain scans of pain-related brain activity were significantly reduced while engaging with the technology. VR headsets can provide distractive treatments by enabling an absorption into games and digital worlds, reducing the level of pain and anxiety experienced by patients whilst they are using the technology.

By augmenting physical therapy treatment in patients who are post-illness, accident, or otherwise in need in need of physical rehabilitation, VR has been shown to be an adaptable treatment tool. It supports both motivationally, and by reproducing precise exercises and movements which can be specifically tailored to individuals for targeted physical exercises and real-life functional skills.

VR technology can also be used to help improve memory and cognitive function especially in attention and execution, cognition, and balance, particularly in older adults with mild cognitive impairment or dementia. It has been shown support the five global cognition domains of orientation/attention, memory, verbal fluency, language, and visuospatial ability.

Beside this, cognitive rehabilitation studies have found that VR may strengthen the effects of traditional therapies by augmenting sensory inputs and encouraging integration and processing using a multisensory approach.

For clinical surgical training, advanced VR is enabling surgeons to gain experience by practising virtually prior to the surgical procedure itself. This means that when it comes to the actual procedure, the clinician has already performed virtual trials which improve situational awareness and efficiency. In fact, a study by Harvard Business Review found that the performance of participants who had experienced VR training was improved by around 230% compared with the previous conventional approach, besides improving cost and time efficiencies.

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