Tuesday 13 December 2022,
by Andy Stafford

It is no secret that the healthcare industry is under immense pressure to deliver better patient outcomes at a lower cost, and in recent years, there has been an increase in the use of virtual reality (VR) in healthcare as a tool to help achieve these objectives. 


Treatment for conditions like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has previously been demonstrated to be successful with virtual reality (VR). In addition to helping those with mental illnesses, virtual reality has also been leveraged to aid in the rehabilitation of stroke victims.  


VR is increasingly being used by healthcare organizations around the world and is likely to play a significant role in the future of healthcare delivery. Numerous studies have already been conducted in this area. If you're interested in learning more about the effectiveness of this digital health technology, click here for a link to a meta-review on the subject. 


There are numerous examples of efficacy. SnowWorld is a VR game that has been very effective in relieving pain in burn patients.  Another study found that VR was effective in reducing fear and anxiety in pediatric cancer patients during MRI scans.  VR is being used to help rehabilitate patients who have suffered from strokes. Some studies have shown that VR can improve motor function and movement in stroke patients. VR is also being used to help patients with other conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.


Yet, despite the promising clinical evidence for VR, its adoption in wider healthcare has been slow. 


How Does Virtual Reality Actually Work?

Virtual reality uses computer technology to create a simulated environment. This environment can be similar to the real world or it can be completely imaginary, produced using 360-degree video or software. 


In it, users can interact with this environment using special equipment such as headsets, gloves, and controllers to create embodied experiences that create a genuine sense of presence for the user.



What about virtual environments? 

While virtual reality headsets are often used to create a virtual environment, this is not the only way to experience VR. There are also virtual reality apps that can be used on smartphones and tablets. These apps allow users to explore different virtual worlds and interact with other people who are using the app.


The metaverse is a digital world that allows users to interact with each other in a virtual space and is based on the virtual world of forerunner ‘Second Life’, a computer game that was created all the way back in 2003.  


The metaverse is still in development, of course as anyone watching the news about META, (formerly known as Facebook) determined to build the pre-eminent version of the metaverse will know, the metaverse has the potential to become a major ‘social media’ platform within a decentralized web3 future.


Why has adoption been slow?

Virtual reality and the metaverse are likely to intersect in the future as they both become gain in popularity. Virtual reality will provide a way for users to experience the metaverse in a more immersive way, whilst the metaverse will provide a way for users to socialize and collaborate in a virtual space. The possibilities for healthcare here are vast but remain relatively unexplored for now.


There are several reasons for the slow adoption of virtual reality in healthcare. One reason is the risk-averse nature of the healthcare industry until there is compelling proof of its (often improved) efficacy.  Another reason is the lack of understanding of virtual reality from healthcare professionals, many of whom are not familiar with VR and its potential applications in healthcare, along with the high cost of VR headsets which has slowed adoption. Finally, the specter of big tech running roughshod over our privacy rights in healthcare, given that they are the main VR headset providers, and how they will be integrated into clinical systems effectively and ethically really does complicate matters further. 


A way to overcome one of these hurdles and increase the adoption of virtual reality in healthcare is to develop standards, processes, interoperability, and training for the use of VR in healthcare. This would help to ensure that VR is used in a safe and effective manner.  Of course, this is easier said than done and requires people from many disciplines to collaborate. 


It is important to question, however, if VR should only be used as a complement to traditional treatment methods, or as a replacement or standalone service. Once the problems have been overcome VR could be used to treat an unlimited number of patients at scale- not just supporting a therapist with their patient, for instance.   



The industry's tendency to avoid risk has played a big part in the sluggish adoption of VR in the healthcare sector.   Despite this inevitable challenge, VR is being used more frequently by healthcare organisations all over the world and is probably going to play a big part in the future when it comes to providing patients with actual health outcomes, particularly in the field of mental health. 


Imagine for a second if the vast numbers of patients across Europe who have been prescribed SSRI medication for anxiety and depression were suddenly able to access efficacious, personalised, and immersive VR treatment at scale, and simultaneously (for support). 


Nobody is pretending that it would be a silver bullet, but it would be much more accessible to increasing percentages of populations of people around the world, and without the unwelcome side effects. 


This would represent a paradigm shift, moving some healthcare from an intense 1-1 ‘service’ to more of a ‘product’ that helps more people more quickly and for less cost, eliminating the human bottlenecks and freeing up all that human potential.  The adoption of digital health across individual European markets has been extremely varied, and VR will be no exception. Whether we look at Europe, America, or the places across the globe that are less able to access quality care,  access is just a matter of time. 


Virtual reality and the metaverse should now be part of your product, and marketing considerations if you are a life sciences company or health provider exploring how to accelerate training, build better partnerships, and improve and scale care in order to deliver better outcomes by collaborating with the organisations delivering the care. 


It’s just part of the inevitable and continual wave of change that technology will enable and can be delivered with Web3.


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