Virtual reality (VR) is the new [old] buzzword [again], capturing the imagination of a new generation of early adopters, technologists and gamers. With its early roots in the 1950s simulation community, there have been decades of research, dedicated journals and conferences that have built a substantial VR knowledge base.

You can imagine how the current VR hype cycle must appear like a true déjà vu event for many VR veterans. But what’s different this time is that the technology is now within reach of the consumer…and almost out of reach of motion sickness.

And, there is a new benefactor: the gaming and entertainment market. The majority of recently created VR content is, therefore, made solely for the user’s enjoyment. However, though the global entertainment and media market is substantial (~$2 trillion), VR applications in other sectors are poised to have a much larger impact on our daily lives.

Consider the healthcare sector, which is a target rich environment for VR. Due to the variety and complexity of operational workflows in the medical field—only to be surpassed by the variety and complexity of human pathology—there are several opportunities for VR to create a significant impact: Education, simulation, diagnosis, treatment and behavior modification are major entry points.

Physical Therapy in Immersive Virtual Worlds

Physical therapy can be challenging, uncomfortable and boring. Compliance rates for home regimens can be extremely poor. Virtual reality will help enliven the process. My company, VRecover, is developing engaging, gamified, immersive environments with accurate motion tracking to help physical therapy patients keep up with treatment regimens and improve outcomes.

Much research has been conducted using motion capture devices to record a patient’s movements and map those movements onto a virtual avatar displayed on large screen monitors. Compared to traditional physical therapy, results have shown significant promise using this technique in patients with stroke, Parkinson’s disease and musculoskeletal injuries—but much less research has been performed in these settings using immersive VR with head-mounted displays (HMDs).

VRecover is betting that full immersion with presence will have an even more dramatic and beneficial effect on their recovery and become a critical modality for use by physical therapists.  

Understanding Disease: A VR Experience Is Worth a Million Words

Patients have a varying understanding of their disease processes, and it is well known that after an encounter with a provider, patients can forget more than half of what they were discussing. While a picture is worth a thousand words, an immersive VR experience is worth a million.

Using immersive experiences to visualize their disease, patients can gain a significantly better understanding of the illness, allowing them to feel more empowered and therefore more willing to follow through with their treatment.

Understanding their condition is also critical for “informed consent.”

The process of educating a patient to the details of a treatment or procedure and its risks, benefits and alternatives, is required by law in all 50 states. It has been recognized as a critical and highly effective patient safety practice by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the National Quality Forum, both highly respected organizations which are influential in healthcare policy and practices.

Patients who are properly informed are more satisfied and willing to work with providers and less likely to file a malpractice claim. Informed consent is taken to a new level when the patient can actually see a simulated surgical procedure using 3D visualizations of their body from CT, MRI or PET scans.  When it is your body that you are looking at, rather than an impersonal 3D rendering or animation, you pay attention to every visual detail and hear every word of explanation. This is personalized medicine for imaging!

Again, the immersive experience is worth a million words—or the equivalent of a really long informed consent session!

Making Guided Imagery With VR

Guided imagery is a technique that can be used in many aspects of medicine, including medical conditions such as hypertension, treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer, and psychological conditions such as anxiety and chronic pain. This technique directs a patient to imagine images that can promote healing and well being.  

The experience is obviously user dependent, with individuals realizing different levels of effectiveness based on their ability to concentrate on the visualization task. VR can not only accelerate the training for this mental exercise, but the experience now becomes more vivid, with content that can not only be personalized for the patient’s unique medical condition, but dynamically changed based on feedback.

Learning Anatomy With a Guided 3D Tour of the Body

Human anatomy is not an easy subject to master. Organic shapes arranged in complex and unintuitive configurations are difficult to comprehend, especially for those who have a hard time thinking in 3D.

Students won’t have to mentally struggle so much to reconstruct the spatial relationships of internal human anatomy in their mind using immersive VR.

Now, they will be able to view these relationships by freely moving to anywhere inside a virtual body and viewing from any angle. This will benefit not only the future surgeons of the world, but all providers, who will have better diagnostic and procedural competency through their improved understanding.

Surgeons Can Better Explore, Plan, and Practice Operations

No two people are alike, inside or out. Regardless of the experience of a surgeon, anatomic variability can at times be an interesting anomaly or a potential cause of complications.

The ability to understand an individual’s unique anatomic configuration from skin to bone can be a significant benefit to a surgeon, especially prior to a complex operation. Immersive VR will enable surgeons to explore their patient’s virtual body—reconstructed from their CT or MRI data—and plan or even practice difficult surgeries prior to the actual procedure.

This will lead to better outcomes through fewer complications, optimized surgical approaches and shorter operating times.

Powerful Ideas Finally Made Viable

While these use cases have been proposed or attempted in the past, they have been difficult to operationalize. But now with consumer access to quality VR, they can become viable solutions.

It is an exciting time to be involved in the VR renaissance. With almost monthly advances in displays, input devices, the software production pipeline or delivery platforms (VR can even be experienced through a web browser…check out WebVR)—there is much to learn and build upon the path blazed by the VR pioneers of the past. VR is not likely to return to the technology hibernation cave again!


Michael Aratow is CEO and co-Founder of VRecover, Chief Medical Information Officer at San Mateo Medical Center in San Mateo, CA, Board Certified in Emergency Medicine and Clinical Informatics and still practices Emergency Medicine.  He also is an angel investor and sits on the Board of two digital health startups and the Web3D Consortium, a nonprofit trade organization that maintains an open, royalty free, ISO ratified 3D standard for the web. 

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Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Dr. Aratow is a champion of innovation in both the medical and technology fields as a healthcare technology executive, front-line clinician, early-stage healthcare company advisor, angel investor, and now as the CEO and founding partner of VRecover.

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