October 14, 2019
Software developers and medics around the world are working to prove that Virtual Reality (VR) powers stretch far beyond gaming and entertainment and have the potential to aid thousands suffering from cancer, anxiety, personality disorders, physical or psychological traumas.
VR can save no lives directly. But it can add quality to the day-to-day routine of patients, by offering immersive experiences to improve pain and stress management. To what extent can VR headsets replace painkillers and anti-depressants? What does the pharmaceutical industry have to say about that? Companies targeting the healthcare niche in the VR market are still not able or willing to provide concrete answers. And current lack of regulations in the sector makes VR’s medical future even more uncertain. However, its hospital deployment is now underway, even though it is at an experimental stage. Volunteer patients are already benefiting from the engaging, three-dimensional nature of virtual reality, whose relaxing effect is a substitute for meditation, according to some.
VR’s medical future is uncertain. However, hospital deployment is underway, even though it is at an experimental stage. Volunteer patients are already benefiting from the engaging, three-dimensional nature of virtual reality, whose relaxing effect is a substitute for meditation, according to some.
Simon Sherrington, MD
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VR is making progress in healthcare
“Different patients experience VR differently. But it is already obvious that it has a positive effect on many”, says Diane Jooris, CEO and co-founder of Belgian start-up OnComfort which offers variety of VR tools for the healthcare sector. The company partners with twenty hospitals in Belgium and France and is doing clinical researches with healthcare institutions in Asia.
Children and elderly people appear to be easily mesmerised by VR’s soothing powers, while teenagers aged 14 to 18 are the greatest sceptics. “They are tech-savvy, hard to please and always demand more”, the expert explained.
Scepticism within the healthcare sector also thwarts VR’s progress. Jooris adds: “Some doctors still see VR headsets as glamorous futuristic gadgets that don’t belong in hospital wards. A change in mentality is needed but it will take time. How will we achieve it? By literally living in hospitals, talking to staff, engaging them in debates, and so on.”
According to Jooris, it takes between one and four years for the full impact of VR on a patient to be revealed. But volunteers are already providing positive feedback. Recently a breast-cancer patient shared her experiences on how the virtual undersea environment of one of OnComfort’s products – Aqua – helped her go through a painful procedure without having to rely on drugs. Aqua’s components include progressive muscular relaxation, deep breathing training and clinical hypnosis. According to its creators, the product aims at bringing natural relaxation and modified perception of painful stimuli and anxiety-triggering environments.
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VR is still in its early days and its impact on human body and mind is yet to be thoroughly assessed. However, various sources point out that immersive reality and pharmaceutical products may have a thing in common – side effects.
No universal therapeutic tool is possible because no two medical conditions are the same. For instance, simple 3D images are required for dementia sufferers whose fading memory struggles with the complexity of the real world, while advanced and engaging virtual worlds must be created to distract cancer patients from the painful procedures they have to endure. VR for young children is a whole different story where a fairy-tale, cartoon-like approach is vital.
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