Treatments for cancer and depression can take on a new dimension thanks to advances in virtual reality technology.
Over the past two years there has been an explosion in virtual reality (VR) applications in healthcare, but we are still in the early stages of realising its potential for patients. Until now, its medical use has mostly been focused on education, from the Royal London Hospital’s 2017 virtual-surgery project – in which surgeons in different geographical locations performed operations together – to “experiential” training for physicians to help them better understand the actual realities their patients are living with.
As VR moves closer to mainstream adoption, however, the possibilities for using the technology in actual treatment and care are beginning to emerge. We’re already exploring how “VR Therapy” can support conditions from visual impairments to autism. In 2019, we will see this technology become a valuable digital therapeutic in helping treat cancer patients and people with mental illness, and we will reach a tipping point in its use and acceptance in healthcare.
VR Therapy involves giving patients tasked-based programs that they perform within virtual environments. Studies from Cedars-Sinai and other institutions have shown VR Therapy to be effective in significantly reducing pain among hospitalised patients. But we are now beginning to recognise that VR technology is more than just a form of distraction. It can be a significant part of healthcare that is not simply about treating an ailment, but is a holistic, horizontal approach that recognises the relationship between chronic illness and factors such as mental health, diet and lifestyle. VR can improve outcomes in all of these areas by providing a fuller sensory experience that can help build better habits.
VR also offers the opportunity to develop more personalised therapeutics, especially in mental healthcare. It is already being used to treat PTSD, phobias and psychiatric conditions such as conversion disorder, and it is showing excellent results. A 2018 Journal of Medical Internet Research review of recently published studies concluded that VR, especially when combined with other psychological interventions, showed “a potential for a real positive behaviour change for a range of mental health conditions”. As VR becomes mainstream it will help drive its use and effectiveness as therapy and treatment, far beyond simple virtual therapy visits.
We don’t yet know the full treatment capabilities of VR. As with any medicine or treatment, it will continue to be refined as we discover more. But, over the next year, this technology will emerge from the cloak of clinical studies to begin reaching those in need. According to one report, the global VR healthcare market is set to grow by by 54.5 per cent annually between now and 2023. 2019 will be the year it stakes its claim to being a central part of mainstream medicine.