Could virtual reality help transform the way in which healthcare is delivered in the UK?

4 mins read

With the NHS under unprecedented levels of pressure and struggling to cope with the number of patients coming through its doors, medical technology is being seen as one way of transforming how healthcare can be delivered over the next few years. Significant improvements are expected in the way patients are monitored, diagnosed and treated, but also in the way that clinicians and nurses are trained.

According to a report from Plextek Consulting – Patient of the Future: 2020 – the next five years will see a move away from the typical 'doctor-patient' model and see the creation of a health service based on innovative care models that will look to ease the burden on over-stretched GP surgeries, A&E departments and hospitals across the UK.

The report's author Collette Johnson, Plextek's medical business manager, said: "Emerging start-ups, manufacturers, retailers and healthcare professionals need towork together to ensure innovative devices and revolutionary medical systems make the step from concept to reality. Consumers must embrace this technology, start using it and be in control of their health."

Among the most exciting technologies being employed by hospitals is Virtual Reality (VR), which can encompass surgery simulation, managing patients remotely, the treatment of phobias, robotic surgery and skills training. VR is also seen as a possible alternative to invasive procedures when it comes to diagnosing illness.

While VR's full potential, in terms of the medical market, has yet to be realised, there has been, said Johnson, a steady shift in the how the technology is perceived by medical practitioners, with the deployment of VR systems to rehabilitate patients and train professionals.

"The technology is increasingly being seen as offering a viable solution that is capable of solving genuine problems," suggested Johnson.

It has been estimated that the medical simulation market could be worth $1.9billion by 2017.

The Armed Forces have been using VR to train staff for some time and Plextek has recently completed a project with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), which saw the creation of a medical immersive simulation training system using the Oculus Rift. The solution was designed to simulate pre-hospital care on the battlefield and force trainees to negotiate and prioritise clinical needs.

The virtual simulation has huge potential to expand existing 'moulage technique' training, which typically involves actors with painted-on wounds in a sterile setting. By placing the soldiers within an immersive, life-like battlefield environment, they could learn to be far better prepared for incidents on the frontline. After completing the exercise, the trainees' performance was then evaluated using a debrief module that provides a recording of participants' actions and generates an evaluative report of their actions.

According to Johnson: "Our work with Dstl is helping to revolutionise the way medical treatment can be applied in the battlefield, while creating opportunities for advanced health training applications across a breadth of industries."

Beyond the military environment, innovation in VR is expected to lead to the development of systems that will help patients overcome traumatic situations or to rehabilitate their body; helping families to better understand how a particular health issue is affecting a family member; and to use VR as an effective distraction technique for subduing pain, for example in the treatment of severe burns.

Patients will no longer have to feel isolated as VR will enable families to have a more visual and better understanding of what they are going through.

According to Johnson in the next five years patients will be able to fully use VR systems to overcome traumatic situations or to rehabilitate their bodies.

For patients confronted with life changing illnesses or challenges, VR could provide a tool capable of reducing the fear of the unknown and a better understanding of a particular disability.

Viscira, a specialist provider of communications solutions and software, is using VR to develop a range of solutions capable of communicating healthcare information in immersive ways.

Using the Oculus Rift, which uses custom tracking technology to provide low latency 360° head tracking, the company has developed a solution that can simulate the impact of schizophrenia. Using Oculus Rift goggles, a healthcare professional, or a carer, can become immersed in a 3D environment where they can experience what it might be like to be a schizophrenic patient.

According to Viscira the device is intended to let the user develop more empathy with the sufferer and to better understand the problems and challenges they are likely to experience. For the patient, it helps to demonstrate that they can still lead an active life with the right support in place.

Viscira has also developed a VR device called Eye-Mac that helps physicians to simulate the experience of having neovascular (wet) age-related macular degeneration. The device not only helped them to understand the problems patients had to contend with, but also generated data to help the physician to better treat the eye disease itself.

Virtual reality is also being employed to treat amputee victims who suffer from what is described as 'phantom pain' whereby the patient of the missing limb 'feels' it but can neither control or see it. No one quite knows why this happens although research suggests that the brain still recognises the missing limb.

In an experimental treatment, US researchers used VR equipment to help a patient who had been suffering from phantom pain for an extended period of time. He could see a virtual representation of the missing limb and, with the use of electrodes attached to the base of the missing limb, move it.

VR has also been used to treat burns patients who have to undergo painful treatment to 'stretch' burned skin. In the US, Loyola University Hospital employed a virtual game called 'Snow World', in which the patient could throw snowballs at various targets while listening to music. The treatment was found to be successful as it distracted patients from their treatment. Both patients and MRI results demonstrated that the treatment reduced the pain they suffered as a result of the treatment.

VR, through this type of escapism, is expected to change the way in which patients psychologically view the world and their health issues and to offer an approach that can be tailored to the specific needs of the individual.

However, if VR is to succeed and be accepted as a viable treatment for a variety of conditions, then the secondary effects on those patients being treated need to be fully understood. Not all patients will be suitable for such a treatment.