What will augmented and virtual reality technology do for healthcare?

From treating service members to training clinicians, augmented and virtual reality could soon reshape patient therapy, disease research, medical education and more.
By Sherree Geyer
07:43 AM
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The USC-developed BraveMind VR headset was deployed to Iraq to help service members combat stress.

Augmented reality, the technology behind this summer's popular game app, Pokémon GO, and virtual reality – popularized by the Oculus Rift gaming headset – are poised to reshape patient therapy and medical training, some say.

"We believe AR/VR has the power to revolutionize how we deliver and approach healthcare and medicine," said Rodwin Pabello, director of product development at San Francisco-based software developer, Viscira.

"It's already impacting the way medical professionals are training and physicians diagnose and treat patients," Pabello added. "There are many different uses for the technology within healthcare from application in operating rooms to educational fun and games and that's just scratching the surface."

AR overlays views of the physical world with fabricated images that engage users, while VR uses software to simulate images, sounds and sensations to isolate them.

Both technologies create an environment well-suited for immersion or exposure-based therapy to treat fear and anxiety, said Skip Rizzo, director of medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies in Playa Vista, California.

"Traditional therapy helps patients face their fears and talk about it," said Rizzo, who used a video game console to develop BraveMind, a VR headset that helps clinicians treat soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.

[Also: Pokémon Go on the decline? That does not bode well for health apps and patient engagement]

"Imagine the patient going through it in the safety of an office with a clinician who knows how to push the person," he said. "The clinician has real-time control to ask them (patients) to recount their experiences.

"We've built out 14 different worlds – an Afghan village, remote-mountain outpoint, an Iraqi or Afghan marketplace," he explained. "I can put people in these worlds and change the time of day, lighting, ambient sounds, people walking around, insurgents popping up."

Likewise, Viscira developed VR software that replicates for caregivers what schizophrenia looks like. Delivered via Oculus Rift goggles, the 3D visualization includes complete with full audio and video.

"The VR software is not meant to treat schizophrenia," said Pabello. Instead, it is designed to create a virtual hallucination that can more closely demonstrate the patient experience.

"We're exploring networked VR experiences that connect healthcare professionals remotely into 3D virtual worlds, such as the mechanism of a drug or a virtual conference," he added. "We're also testing the Microsoft HoloLens AR headset."

'Controlled environment'
"Four meta analyses in the last six or seven years show VR outperforms traditional exposure and is as good as In Vivo (cognitive) exposure," said Rizzo. "You can build a controlled environment, manipulate the stimuli to test, train or treat users under a range of conditions. You can give immediate feedback and amplify minimal movement to natural movement in a VR environment."

Ryan McMahan, director of Future Immersive Virtual Environment Lab at the University of Texas, Dallas, explained how a half-million-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation will enable him to leverage the "virtual-ness" of VR to develop cause-and-effect training tools for operating room staff.

[Also: Oculus Rift comes to healthcare]

"With VR, we can create simulations that recognize procedural error, such as forgetting to put on protective eyewear, and fast forward the trainee to possible consequences, such as blood squirting in the eye during surgery," said McMahan. "After seeing the consequences, we can rewind the simulation before the error to allow trainees to correct his or her mistake.

"In the past, VR for healthcare has primarily focused on training fine-motor skills, such as laparoscopic surgery or endoscopies," he added. "However, there are many healthcare issues related to training of gross-motor skills and simple cognitive recall of proper procedures. In the near future, VR-based training will facilitate tasks, such as preparing an operating room for surgery, properly donning personal protective equipment or simply keeping one's hands washed between patients."

Poised for growth
"We are currently in the steepest part of an industry adoption curve when it comes to AR/VR," said Pabello. "Innovation can come in waves, and we're seeing lots of investment, innovation and new entrants into the AR/VR space with new hardware and software solutions.

"Multiple reports have predicted that within 10 years AR and VR would produce revenue in the tens of billions of dollars," he added. "A recent industry report, published in September, on the future of AR/VR predicts that roughly 25 percent of all investment in AR/VR will be directed to healthcare. We believe this is a reasonable assumption."

Indeed, a recent Goldman-Sachs report forecasts the market for AR/VR in healthcare, second only to gaming, will reach $5.1 billion by 2025. The report calls the technology disruptive and expects access to increase as price of production drops.

"Mass market for VR will exponentially grow and approach these projections," Rizzo predicted. "If VR fails, it will fail as an idea not because of the technology. With healthcare, you've got make sure it does what you say it does and you have the research behind you. We have to appeal to a higher standard."

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