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Virtual Reality in Healthcare and Medical Technology

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Virtual reality has emerged as one of the hottest tech buzzwords over the last few years. Of course, VR isn’t just a buzzword, although sometimes people toss the term around so much that it feels like it. Virtual Reality could prove to be the next big thing, especially when it comes to concrete industry-specific applications. Healthcare, in particular, presents an opportunity for some truly revolutionary applications.

Let’s stop and consider medicine for a second. Across the board, healthcare is a complex field. This is true for coordinating activities, handling organization processes (i.e. staffing) and, of course, providing care. Indeed, the latter is the source of many of the complications in health care.

Virtual Reality in practice Credit: (U.S. Air Force photo by John Ingle)
Virtual Reality in practice
Credit: (U.S. Air Force photo by John Ingle)

At the same time, let’s think about how far human medicine has advanced over the last century. A few hundred years ago, most health “experts” had practically no idea how the body works. In the mid 19th century, “surgery” generally meant sawing arms and legs off. Just a century ago, we didn’t have antibiotics.

Now, doctors can cure countless complex diseases, perform insanely advanced procedures, such as heart transplants, and likewise carry out treatments that doctors a hundred years ago couldn’t have even dreamed of. How the times change.

Virtual reality is going to usher in even more change. How? VR will allow doctors to understand how the body works on infinitely tiny scales, or to visualize organs without having to cut people open. Complex systems, such as the cardiovascular system, can be put right on display. The body is complex and as much as we know about it, we still have a lot to learn.

Virtual reality could be used to visualize these complex systems as they work. VR could also be used to illustrate how cells, bacteria, and other microscopic aspects operate. VR could also be used to train students, educate patients, and in a whole wide range of applications as well. Let’s look at some potential VR applications for health care.

Specific Ways VR is Helping in Health Care

Autism Therapy From Afar

Millions of people worldwide are afflicted with autism, an incurable disease. While autism cannot be cured, it can be treated. Social training, interactions, and various other activities can help autistic individuals cope and live normal lives. VR is being used in the training process, allowing autistic individuals to interact remotely. So far, such interactions appear to be promising.

VR Empowered Medical Training

Medical students spend a lot of time dissecting cadavers. Virtual reality will likely never replace cadavers but it could help medical students take a closer, more intricate look at various human organs and body parts. This could improve medical students’ understanding of the human body.

Further, cadavers are not easy to come by, and there’s actually a shortage. As a result, nurses and other medical staff typically don’t dissect a cadaver. Virtual reality training, however, could help improve their understanding of human anatomy.

Med Students learning on the job. Credit: (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Michael Ellis)
Med Students learning on the job. Credit: (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Michael Ellis)

Chronic Pain Treatment

Interestingly, clinical trials suggest that virtual therapy can result in a 25% reduction in pain. More or less, virtual reality is being used to treat people how to control their brain’s reaction to pain, and most importantly, how to dampen pain itself. Not only could this help people lead better lives, but it could also reduce dependency on addictive prescription painkillers.

Enhancing Patient Care

Going to the doctor can be a hassle. You might have to wait in line for hours just to see a doctor for five minutes. It’s not like doctors want to make you wait, it’s just the nature of the game. Because of this, however, doctors and patients often fall “out of touch.”

What if doctors could do “in-house” visits through VR? If you have a rash, for example, you could scan it at home, and your doctor could review it via virtual reality. Or how about a VR conversation to explain your symptoms? It’d be more personal than a simple phone call.

Patient meets with doctor. Credit: By National Cancer Institute [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Patient meets with doctor. Credit: By National Cancer Institute [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

VR could open up a world of opportunities

Virtual reality is likely to impact a lot of industries and technologies. From entertainment to education, VR will likely spur innovative and improvement across the board. However, VR’s impact on health care could be especially fruitful owing to the many complexities involved in medicine, and the many solutions virtual reality could offer.