In 2019, Time magazine listed virtual reality (VR) as one of the 12 innovations that will change health care and medicine in the 2020s. With this projection, the probability that you will use VR sometime in your life is high! VR is currently being used in a variety of fields, including

• Mental health
• Pain management
• Rehabilitation
• Training and education

VR is not a fad, as studies are underway for its potential efficacy to treat Alzheimer’s disease, depression, addiction, and other illnesses. This new field of medicine collectively referred to as medical extended reality (MXR), encompasses VR and augmented reality (AR). There are many aspects in the VR landscape including safety, regulations, and value to name a few. Let’s dive in and explore some of the clinical uses of this emerging trend.

Pediatric Intervention
Children are often under-treated and under-recognized when it comes to managing pain, fear, and anxiety. Thus, VR is utilized in children’s hospitals, such as Stanford Children’s Health, to engage and distract children during painful procedures. At the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, VR is used in several ways to reduce pain and stress, including the use of AR goggles for patients in the pre-op so they can watch movies and play games prior to surgery, and the use of VR games in the intensive care unit (ICU).

Mental Health Treatment
With an estimated 52.9 million adults suffering from mental illness in 2020 according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), one of the biggest challenges today is the rising demand for mental health treatment and a shortage of available providers. As another tool to tackle mental health conditions, VR now contributes to the availability of additional resources.

The use of VR software simulates real-world settings that closely resemble the surroundings of daily life so that triggering stimuli such as anxiety, paranoia, fear, and cravings can be assessed and treated. Anxiety disorders are already being treated using virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) as a potentially scalable tool. In addition to anxiety-like disorders, VR is being studied for several other disorders.

There is evidence that VRET reduces post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, with sustained improvements at six and twelve months after treatment. Among children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a recent research initiative demonstrated that VR combined with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) improved specific phobias. For seniors who suffer from social isolation, Rendever has developed a VR platform designed to reduce depression and loneliness.

Chronic Pain Treatment
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey in 2019 found that 20.4% of US adults have experienced chronic pain. Persistent pain is linked to depression and anxiety and can become an overlapping symptom.

In a study conducted by Cedars Sinai, VR reduced hospitalized patients’ pain scores by 24% and was most effective for patients with severe pain. In November 2021, a prescription medical device (RelieVRx) was authorized by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as the first at-home VR therapeutic as an adjunct to treat chronic lower back pain.

Virtual Rehabilitation
While the benefits of physical therapy have long been established, some patients who would benefit from PT do not have access to it. In recent years, VR rehabilitation has been gaining traction with a host of conditions from chronic pain, stroke, and Parkinson’s disease to multiple sclerosis, dementia, and cerebral palsy. VR-assisted rehab may offer advantages for patients such as improved patient engagement and motivation, poststroke functional recovery, and improved mobility in Parkinson’s patients.

Training and Education
It can be challenging for educators to meet learning objectives through standardized medical training, especially as healthcare systems evolve. VR training and education, allow personnel, students, and residents to learn in a controlled environment while minimizing risks to real patients. As a result, VR systems are increasingly used in hospitals to train residents, assist surgeons with surgical planning, and educate patients. In a UCLA study, participants using the Osso VR platform significantly improved their overall surgical performance compared to conventional training methods.

Health Inequities
The healthcare system continues to be affected by structural racism, affecting the well-being of all people, especially those who have historically been marginalized. The use of VR as a training tool is currently being explored for a better understanding of the cultural needs of patients, with the possibility of VR becoming a tool for increasing empathy and giving people a broader perspective when interacting with individuals of different racial and economic backgrounds.

With VR technology developing at record speed and its potential to transform healthcare, we are keeping VR on our radar. We encourage you to learn more about VR and the world of MXR by visiting our website to explore our latest white paper: Virtual Reality – An Emerging Paradigm in Healthcare

This is just the beginning!