How Virtual Reality in Healthcare Is Changing Medicine

By Gordon Gottsegen (November 1, 2023)

VR/AR technology is on the rise, and companies are using it to improve healthcare in novel ways.

When Carrie Shaw was 19, her mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. A few years later, Shaw moved back home to help out. Her father and sisters pitched in too, but they also needed live-in caregivers, and Shaw had some difficulty explaining her mother’s condition to them.

Besides Alzheimer’s, Shaw’s mom couldn’t see anything on her left side due to a visual field deficit. This explained certain behaviors, like why she ate only half the food on her plate, or why she failed to notice anyone who approached from her left.

To mimic the sensation of partial blindness, Shaw took a pair of safety goggles and covered the left half of each lens with blue tape, so she and others could experience firsthand how this condition impacted her mom.

“That really helped me understand how to care for her,” Shaw said. “It was very memorable to see what she was seeing, and feel where my body was unprotected.”

Virtual Reality Therapy

Being so closely involved with her mother’s struggles inspired Shaw to get into healthcare technology and create Embodied Labs, which uses VR to simulate what it’s like to live with certain health conditions. Interactive, 360-degree videos play through a VR headset, allowing wearers to experience life from someone else’s perspective.

One of the company’s first labs, We Are Alfred, transforms users into Alfred, a 74-year-old man suffering from macular degeneration and high frequency hearing loss.

“Students would put on the headset, and even though they would read in their introduction that they were about to embody Alfred, they would immediately say, ‘There’s something broken, I can’t see.’ Or, ‘Turn up the volume, I can’t hear,’ and then realize [that was the point],” Shaw said.

Another lab turns users into Beatriz, a woman living with Alzheimer’s. At one point wearers are prompted to say something as Beatriz (by either answering someone’s question or asking for help), but the words emerge jumbled. Another part of the Beatriz experience involves simulating a stressful environment in a crowded room. Sound becomes distorted and volume increases. As Alzheimer’s also adversely affects communication, this is an important part of understanding the overall experience.

Embodied Labs, which helps users gain empathy for people who have disabilities or certain health conditions, is just one player in an expanding set of healthcare use cases where VR is applied.

How Is Virtual Reality in Healthcare Used?

VR is on the upswing — not just for video games, but for medicine too — because recent advancements and government initiatives have given the technology some momentum.

The virtual reality healthcare market is booming. It’s expected to surpass $40 billion in revenue by 2026, according to a Facts and Factors research report. That’s up from $2.6 billion in 2020.

As a result, the applications of VR in healthcare are legion. VR is making it easier for many medical professionals to conduct surgeries, educate patients, facilitate rehab and therapy, and take care of back-office work.

To give you a snapshot of how companies are helping make that happen, we rounded up a list of a few standout VR applications in the healthcare industry.

TEACHING COMMUNICATION SKILLS TO PEOPLE WITH AUTISM

Consider the case of Vijay Ravindran and his wife Vibha Sazawal, whose son Manoj was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

From an early age, Manoj displayed an intense interest in maps and navigation. He especially liked to explore Google Maps. When Google Street View for VR debuted, Ravindran let Manoj try it out. The result: love at first sight.

Seeing Manoj interact with VR inspired Ravindran and Sazawal to start Floreo, which uses virtual reality to teach social and communication skills to people with autism. Floreo’s platform includes games and activities that explore social connections, situational training and calming techniques.

“Traditional therapy is delivered in an office or in the home in a pretty constrained environment,” Ravindran said. “In virtual reality, we can create environments that suit the situation.”

Some of Floreo’s games help kids practice skills like imitation, nonverbal gestures or joint attention. Other activities immerse them in real-world scenarios, like crossing a busy intersection or interacting with law enforcement.

“For kids with autism who are often overwhelmed by the complexity, noises and visual distractions of the real world, it allows them to see a simpler world to operate in and then practice the skills we’re trying to teach,” Ravindran said.

GAMIFYING PHYSICAL THERAPY AND REHABILITATION

XRHealth created a platform of games and activities that use VR as a form of rehabilitation. In the game Rotate, for example, users guide a virtual dragon across the sky to train neck muscles and expand range of motion. XRHealth tracks progress by sending metrics from the session to a personal portal. Other XRHealth apps include meditation training for pain relief and cognitive behavioral therapy for hot flashes.

DETECTING VISION IMPAIRMENT

SyncThink uses VR goggles with eye-tracking abilities to test for visual impairments. The company’s Eye-Sync platform helps test for concussions soon after a person sustains a bad blow to the head. Eye-Sync even won a Breakthrough Device Designation award from the FDA.

ACCESSING MEDICAL RECORDS

Augmedix uses augmented reality and Google Glass to give doctors quick access to a patient’s electronic health records. In addition to conveying information like previous visits and current medications, Google Glass also acts as a scribe that records important information from each appointment, consequently facilitating a more natural doctor-patient interaction.

PREPARING FOR SURGERY

Surgical Theater adapts MRIs, CT scans and other 2D medical imaging techniques into a 3D model. Surgeons can then use VR to explore and interact with this 3D model to plan a surgery or update a patient on the process.

VR Healthcare Is Just Getting Started

As impressive as it may seem now, VR is a rapidly advancing technology. Every year sees the release of powerful new headsets and innovative software. There’s almost certainly more dazzling developments ahead. Shaw, for one, thinks her company has only scratched the VR surface.

“I think we’re hitting maybe five percent of the current capabilities of the hardware,” she said. “Everything from the filming techniques to the way you can integrate branching stories and use AI to respond to what you do.”

“There’s a lot of buzz about VR and it being an empathy machine,” Shaw said. “We talk about it like it’s a movie or a game, but it’s really a science. More than just feeling empathy, it’s something that transfers knowledge and [impacts] behavior change.”

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