What does virtual reality mean for the healthcare industry?

Consider the following scenario: A woman in a remote rural area of a developing country is due to give birth in a few days. She has no access to a healthcare provider—but thanks to the proliferation of mobile phone technology, she nabs a virtual reality (VR) app and a homemade version of Google’s Cardboard (a boxlike viewer that wraps around a smartphone). There, in a rural village, her birth team is immersed in a 3D lesson in delivery and in preventing infections.

That scenario could be a true reality, not just a virtual one, thanks to the efforts of companies such as zSpace Inc., Jaunt, Inc. and CAE Healthcare. Making VR headsets to support the technology are companies like Oculus (bought by Facebook last year for $2bn), Sony, Samsung, Microsoft, Google and HTC. The market for VR healthcare could reach $2.43bn by 2018, according to research firm Global Industry Analysts.

While VR is not new to medicine, its affordability is: Medical headsets have traditionally cost from $30,000 to ten times that much. Oculus, which will be available to consumers in 2016, is already available to developers for between $350 and $400.

Those at the vanguard of VR see potential for both practitioners and patients. Surgeons, for example, can keep their skills sharp for rarely performed — but critical — procedures such as cricothyrotomies, in which the surgeon has a single, split-second chance to make the difference between life and death. To aid surgical training, Stanford University has a VR surgery simulator that includes tactile feedback.

Even procedures as mundane (yet critical) as CPR can benefit from VR training. A company called Next Galaxy has teamed up with Miami Children’s Health System to produce a VR CPR class for both staff and parents. (Next Galaxy did not respond to repeated requests for result data.)

For patients, VR might help with disease prevention, treatment, psychological conditions and pain management. Researchers in Spain, for example, found that VR could “trick” stroke patients into thinking that their affected limbs were faster and stronger than they really were. The positive feedback increased their use of their affected limb, increasing recovery rates. The technology has also been used to help soldiers suffering from PTSD, sexual assault victims and those with debilitating fears—for example, fear of heights.

The ability of VR to transport users to a fully virtual world — as opposed to augmented reality, which superimposes digital information on real objects — may also offer new ways to deal with addiction. In a pilot study recently published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, for instance, a South Korean team of researchers placed participants suffering from alcoholism in detox for a week, then cycled them through 3D simulations. One was aimed at relaxing them. Another sought to trigger drinking. The third was designed to make alcohol unpleasant, with participants simultaneously imbibing a putrid drink. After five weeks, brain scans showed decreased metabolic activity in areas related to alcoholism.

More VR studies are required before VR can become a standardised treatment procedure. But, as the preliminary results above suggest, when it comes to better health, VR may help turn perception into reality.

This article is published in collaboration with GE Look Ahead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author:Holly Hickman writes for GE Look Ahead.

Image: An attendee tries out Sony’s Morpheus virtual reality headset. REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian  

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