The VR Prescription: How Companies Are Using VR to Change Healthcare

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By Matilda Beinat | 1Q 2024 | IN-7262

Since the pandemic, Virtual Reality (VR) in healthcare has become increasingly popular, and its success rates have been seen in various aspects of training, treatment, and diagnoses. Healthcare professionals are advised to implement these new technologies alongside their traditional approaches.

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The Beginning of Healthcare within Virtual Reality


The COVID-19 pandemic fueled healthcare companies’ move toward Virtual Reality (VR) and its potential, especially in the context of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other stress related pathologies, including the diagnosis and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia. During the pandemic, the National Health Service (NHS) implemented Microsoft's HoloLens to reduce proximities between infected patients and surgeons, creating a safer environment for doctors and allowing communication via Teams through a headset with professionals around the world. Alongside this, companies such as Novobeing, Osso VR, Varjo, and Dopavision have made it their mission to improve either training times, diagnostics, or treatments using VR. This is done by providing tailored environments to clients to perform tasks with high efficiency. In fact, a study conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles’ (UCLA) David Geffen School of Medicine sought to fill the gap in VR's effectiveness. Participants' surgical performance improved by 230% when trained with VR compared to those trained with traditional means.

How Has VR Helped the Healthcare Industry?


Healthcare becomes more complex with each advancement. While this is true, training and diagnoses largely remain unchanged. VR has provided a novel method to approach training, treatment, and diagnoses, all while improving communication. An interesting use case for VR in healthcare came from the University College London (UCL) Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. The research group targeted participants' navigational skills to differentiate between the early Alzheimer's group and the healthy/mild cognitive impairments group. The task required participants to walk through—within the VR world—a labeled route, consisting of two straight labels connected by a turn. Once participants arrived at the final label, their job was to return to the starting position from memory. The team discovered that participants with early Alzheimer's showed increased variability in sense of direction, while healthy/mild cognitive impaired participants did not. This particular use case depicts the specific impact of VR on dementia research, especially when diagnosing patients with early onset dementia. However, more work needs to be done to confirm these early findings; therefore, no concrete conclusions can be made, yet it is a promising pathway for detecting Alzheimer’s earlier in the pipeline. Due to almost a million of the United Kingdom's population living with dementia, of which approximately 60% have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, it is important to pursue VR within healthcare as an avenue for diagnosis and treatment. In fact, ABI Research forecasts the VR healthcare market to be around US$1.9 billion in 2024, with a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 39% from 2023 to 2030, further dictating its impact on healthcare.

Furthermore, Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) has been showing success in treating clients with anxiety, anxiety disorders, depression, or PTSD. VRET has been particularly suitable for patients who struggle to engage in traditional therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and traditional exposure therapy. Providing a tailored environment within the VR for each client has shown high success rates—between 66% and 90% for PTSD clients for CBT enhancement. VRET has also been used for pain relief in substituting medications; for example, the use of epidural was not required for a woman giving birth due to the relaxing VR environment she was experiencing. Yet, implementing VRET in healthcare for daily use requires far more due diligence, especially because users may misuse the technology or, most importantly, feel uneasy, disoriented, or nauseous due to its realistic environment and lack of familiarity with VR.

How Should We Further Implement VR within Healthcare?


As VR and its possibilities becomes a spotlight within healthcare applications, alongside multiple investments made within the industry, ABI Research expects to see demand surge in this field. Defining where to progress will be crucial, creating feasible expectations for VR’s applications and making it as user friendly as possible, while keeping costs to a reasonable rate as the market grows.

  • Education: The majority of clients using VR will require guidance on how to use the technology, simply because they have not encountered it before. Elderly clients may be more prone to its foreign nature affecting their performance, which will hinder the diagnostic process, especially concerning dementia. Furthermore, nausea, disorientation, and misuse of the technology can often be experienced for new users, requiring proper guidance to prevent negative or upsetting experiences. Meta, for example, hopes that as graphics and processing capabilities improve, latency will reduce alongside motion sickness.
  • Validation: Sufficient empirical support will be necessary from the companies providing the programs used to aid in treatment and training procedures. Due to these programs relying heavily on scientific background and hypotheses, it is essential to validate the program used by clients to prevent any harmful data or techniques from being commercialized. As VR slowly becomes a part of healthcare, empirical studies will follow in due course.
  • Factor Consideration: While each use case may be different, it is important to understand the most and the least favorable factors and to focus on them and eliminate them, respectively. Factors may include the ease of use of VR and the customization of the environment, which may be specific to the patient’s requirements or target disease. Issues within production, hardware design, and performance are all factors that also need to be considered. Content creation is often the most challenging factor for VR adoption no matter the use case, in terms of both cost and time.
  • Cost: This is quite complicated to handle with current VR headset prices such as Microsoft's HoloLens 2 costing up to £4,349.00 ($5,508) or Apple's VisionPro from £2,762.00 ($3,499) or £230.18 ($291.58) per month for 12 months. Yet, depending on the requirements of the hardware, whether for training, testing, diagnoses, or treatment, devices from companies such as Pico, Meta, and HTC, with headset prices ranging from £339 ($429.42) to £1,299 ($1,645.46), may be the better choices for your requirements.


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