June 28 2016
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Virtual Reality (VR) in healthcare – focusing on the user need

Last Thursday I got the opportunity to learn about the latest and greatest in VR and its applications in healthcare, courtesy of Health Tech Women. Over the course of 2 hours, the Virtual Reality Breakfast event in London showed how VR really is no longer just about video gaming and is being used to transform healthcare across a range of therapy areas.

Although VR isn’t exactly new, the technology is progressing rapidly and becoming more mainstream. It isn’t difficult to imagine how in the not too distant future, VR will be used routinely for hands-on surgical training, and for the treatment and management of phobias, pain, rehabilitation and preventative medicine.

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VR as empathy stimulator

There is considerable evidence to show that VR can be effective in the treatment of mental health disorders. And exposure therapy using VR is already commonly used and a successful method for helping people overcome their phobias.

Mollie Courtenay, Lead Service Designer at MindWave Ventures, showcased HealthVR, which uses VR technology to develop exposure tasks for use with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). Employing a user-centred design approach to create a true to life immersive environment, the tool is used by clinicians to treat people with an obsessive fear of unclean / contaminated spaces. Entering a virtual bathroom, the viewer is exposed to varying gradations of ‘filth’ ranging from a few stray hairs in the bottom of a bathtub to a vomit splattered toilet. By using this application, clinicians are able to immerse themselves in the patient’s world, ‘see’ what the patient sees and gain a clearer understanding of what the patient is afraid of. Thus, this experience aims to stimulate empathy, enabling improved communication between doctor and patient and helps the patient to learn coping mechanisms within a safe and controlled environment. Also, as Mollie observed, using VR in this way may even be more enjoyable than traditional methods.

Having tried the HealthVR for myself, I can certainly see how, besides CBT, VR could be a useful application for stimulating empathy in managing common mental health issues, and for qualified practitioners to get the most out of talking therapies where getting patients to ‘open up’ is key. Many of those I spoke to agreed that, just by putting on the headset and finding yourself immersed in a different, yet at the same time familiar place made it feel somehow easier to express your thoughts.

VR to create memory palaces

Techniques for improving our memory and ‘training our brain’ are considered good for promoting better mental health. Now VR is also being applied to help enhance mental skills.

Launching on Kickstarter this month (June, 2016), Macunx (short for Magical Quincunx) is using VR technology for the creation of memory palaces – or mental libraries – for your thoughts and information. Chief Evangelist, Luciana Carvalho Se, explained that the concept of a memory palace stems from the medieval period in Europe when special techniques in the art of memory were used by scholars to memorise complex texts – like the Bible – in their entirety. This powerful skill was not and is not limited to a few extraordinary minds but available to everyone. With the help of VR, now everyone has the opportunity to build vast memory banks in a short amount of time.

VR tools such as the Macunx also show promise in helping patients who have had treatments known to impair recall and cognitive function. For example, studies with patients who underwent coronary bypass surgery and surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer reported improved ability to recall information with the help of the memory palaces technique. Similarly, stroke patients using VR in their rehabilitation were also found to experience significant improvements in attention and memory functions, as well as balance and mobility.

Beyond the hype

Although it is already making an impact in surgical /medical training of healthcare professionals, we are only just starting to explore potential uses for VR for transforming the delivery of healthcare and patient experiences. But with projections that the global market for VR in healthcare will reach $3.8 billion by 2020, no doubt a plethora of novel applications will soon be introduced to the market.

In the midst of all the hype, however, let’s not lose sight of how people will be interacting with these VR products and services. It is only by designing with the end user’s needs and goals foremost that this exciting technology has the potential to bring real value to patients and healthcare professionals.

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Posted by PDD

Languages spoken: Global.
The last thing that inspired me: Design and Innovation.
My dream project: A project that makes a difference in the world.
My obsession: Develop successful, award-winning and world-first products and experiences.

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