Current applications and future opportunities of VR in healthcare

By Evelyn Chan

As we celebrate National VR Day and Americans are meeting their insurance deductible for the year, we want to focus on its applications within healthcare. Needle procedures evoke fear and anxiety from your first trip to the doctor’s office. However, VR is changing that and reshaping the very essence of medical treatments. Virtual Reality is quickly showcasing its impact on healthcare, addressing patient challenges, and ushering in improved outcomes.

The Challenge: Patient Anxiety In Healthcare

Patient anxiety, often stemming from fear of medical procedures, is a significant challenge for healthcare providers. Nearly 75% of children have some level of anxiety around needle procedures.  Left unaddressed, it can cause a long-lasting impact well into adulthood, with patients avoiding routine check-ups or even critical, life-saving treatments.

Patients are not the only ones experiencing the effects of this reluctance toward needles. This crippling anxiety can also hinder the ability of healthcare professionals to administer treatments efficiently. What should be a quick and straightforward procedure can turn into a prolonged, distressing ordeal that ultimately delays diagnosis and treatment. In an industry experiencing a critical shortage of staff –  with around 100,000 nurses leaving the workforce – every single person and every single second counts. 

The Response: Transformative Power of Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality (VR) technology has emerged as a powerful response to the challenge of patient anxiety in healthcare. What has previously been used for entertainment is now being developed into a tool to improve patient experiences in healthcare. 

One of the most common applications of virtual reality is for pain management. Smileyscope, which recently became the first VR device to be FDA cleared to reduce pain and anxiety in pediatric patients, has conducted extensive studies on the subject. Their studies showed that the use of immersive virtual reality headsets resulted in up to 60% reduction in pain and 40% in anxiety during needle procedures in children between the ages of 4 and 11. 

Virtual reality works because it affects the way our brain processes pain. By replacing negative stimuli, such as the image of a needle procedure, with positive virtual stimuli, it offers patients a unique experience that transforms the perception of pain. Along with Smileyscope’s studies on acute pain, other VR companies have demonstrated the ability to mitigate chronic pain and assist in palliative care. 

How The Technology Works

VR typically involves specialized hardware, including a VR headset or goggles, motion tracking sensors, and sometimes haptic feedback devices. These components are essential for creating an immersive experience. The patented technology used in Smileyscope, known as “Procedural Choreography,” aligns the virtual experience with real-world medical procedures. A child undergoing a standard vaccination procedure will be immersed in, for example, an underwater adventure where waves wash over their arm during the application of a topic anesthetic and fish nibble on the injection site as the needle goes in. This dual experience helps the child to focus on the virtual world, thereby reducing anxiety and pain during the medical procedure.

VR in Application

Several healthcare facilities have successfully integrated VR technology into their procedures. In one study, the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital found that the additional use of VR as part of their medical procedures, resulted in patients having a 30% increase in the satisfaction during in their experience.  

Improved patient outcomes also translate into satisfaction and a boost of morale in healthcare professionals with 80% of nurses in the same hospital reporting an uplift in morale and job satisfaction when using virtual reality during needle procedures.

The Future of VR in Healthcare

The future of VR for healthcare applications is unlimited. Virtual reality technology is not limited to pain management for patients, but can help prevent sensory overload for Autistic patients during a wide range of medical procedures. For these patients, something as routine as an x-ray can be an overwhelming experience. By immersing them in a different environment via VR, you can soothe their anxiety and provide them with a smoother medical experience. 

It can also be used for exposure therapy for overcoming fears in a simulated setting. Since virtual reality can simulate any environment, patients can face their fears (flying, heights, or public speaking) all from a controlled environment with no real-world consequences or drawbacks.  

For healthcare professionals, virtual reality can be a key educational tool for advancing medical education and clinical training allowing medical students to gain hands-on experience in a virtual world before ever touching a live patient. Virtual reality can also be programmed to mimic real-life scenarios, allowing clinical and decision-making skills to be refined. 

Paving the Way for Compassionate Healthcare

In conclusion, the challenge of patient anxiety in healthcare is being met with innovative responses and VR technology is squarely at the forefront. On the horizon is a healthcare landscape where patients can navigate their medical journeys with less stress and more comfort. The potential applications are limitless, and as this technology continues to evolve, so does the promise of a brighter, patient-centric future for healthcare.

About the author

Evelyn Chan

Evelyn Chan, MPH, DCH, is a pediatrician who has conducted the world’s largest clinical trials in procedural virtual reality. This technology has been used in hospitals, clinics, and vaccine centers around the world. She is a graduate of the University of Oxford, a Rhodes Scholar, former Deputy Chair at the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee, as well as CEO at Smileyscope.

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