Healthcare has come a long way over the years. Each decade brings advancements that would have seemed impossible in the previous decade. While many of the breakthroughs in the tech industry don’t directly impact healthcare, creative minds find ways to use them to impact health and health services.
Experts believe virtual reality (VR) could be the next technology to radically impact the healthcare industry. From improving accessibility to giving doctors new tools to improve their surgical techniques, VR has the potential to make a splash. But will the technology catch on or be another flash in the pan?
Discussions around healthcare accessibility often evoke images of developing countries and extreme poverty. However, this global issue is prevalent not only in developing nations but also in the United States and many other industrialized countries. Given the negative societal impact of limited healthcare accessibility, this is a key issue to address in the coming decades.
While socioeconomic factors play a large role, geography’s impact is also relevant. The global shortage of healthcare providers means that millions live too far from a doctor to receive regular care. Virtual reality could help bridge the gap.
The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in the era of virtual appointments. Though, by and large, the concept wasn’t adopted by patients. The cold, impersonal nature of visiting the doctor through your laptop screen is partially to blame. Though a VR headset is still a screen, the immersive nature could improve the acceptance of virtual care, experts believe.
From annual checkups to visits for reviewing test results, meeting with a provider in VR gives patients a feeling of “being there.” While this type of appointment isn’t appropriate for all situations, it’s certainly better than not going. So, for patients in remote locations or those with another reason they can’t visit the doctor’s physical location, VR makes healthcare accessible.
It also gives patients more flexibility, allowing them to visit with a provider anywhere in the world—not just in their surrounding area. If they need a specialist that practices across the country, they could slip on a VR headset and connect with them in minutes.
Likewise, in parts of the world where medical professionals are scarce, virtual clinics could revolutionize access to care. Providers could work from anywhere, consulting with patients located around the world through VR.
Becoming a surgeon demands a decade of rigorous schooling, residencies, and practice. Obviously, practicing on real patients is out of the question. Before a surgeon ever touches an instrument in the operating room, they must train on animal specimens, artificial dummies, and even human cadavers. However, these resources are all finite and none can perfectly replicate the experience of operating on a living person.
Experts picture VR as a powerful training tool for surgeons to practice complex procedures in a virtual space free of risk. To some degree, this is already happening. Surgeons in Portugal recently operated under the guidance of an expert in Spain who wore a pair of mixed-reality goggles to see the procedure and guide the team in real time.
On the opposite side of the table, VR could improve the experience patients have when coming in for a procedure. Virtual reality headsets have been shown to act as an excellent distraction tool for patients undergoing operations that utilize local anesthesia. Immersing patients in virtual landscapes or even video games helps them stay calm and comfortable during the surgery. A survey showed that 100 percent of patients who had this experience enjoyed it while 94 percent felt more relaxed, and 80 percent felt less pain.
While not all healthcare appointments fit well with the VR model, mental health visits certainly do. This is true for traditional talk therapy sessions as well as more immersive techniques, such as exposure therapy, according to the American Psychological Association.
The latter is useful for treating PTSD and anxiety disorders—and VR is becoming an increasingly important component of the therapy. It allows patients to be exposed to certain triggers within a safe, controlled setting. This helps the patient learn to manage their triggers in the real world. Of course, not all scenarios that trigger PTSD or anxiety are easy (or safe) to recreate. VR gives psychiatrists the ability to do so for anyone, anywhere.
Meanwhile, VR fits well with traditional therapy visits. Much like conventional healthcare, the patient can meet with their provider from anywhere in the world—dramatically increasing access to mental health services. Considering that, in the U.S. alone, about one in five adults live with mental illness, this is more important than ever.
While it will take time for VR to become a staple in today’s healthcare sector, the technology shows major promise. Given its ability to recreate almost any scenario in vivid detail and its improving accessibility thanks to cheaper VR hardware, this is a technology to watch closely in the coming years.