Latest Blog: Impact of VR on GPs, Medicine and Mental Health

Through necessity, last year has brought the medical profession online. Previously GP practices only offered a handful of video or telephone consultations with most patients being seen in person. Therapists switched the therapy room for working online or over the phone. Utilising digital tools has reduced patients taking hours off work,  and minimized the risk of catching and spreading infections in busy waiting rooms. There’s no two ways about it, digital means have been incredibly helpful during this time. Not just online but virtual too.

As a physician, have you ever wanted to experience the reality of your patients? Perhaps how it feels to recover from a heart attack, or how it feels to lose a hand or experience the effects of ageing? With VR, these ideas are now possible. Experiencing conditions and life from another point of view can help build empathy and understanding. VR tools can be used to share the results of scans with patients or to get a second opinion. These developments can lead to faster diagnoses and treatments, leading to better patient outcomes. 

Did you know that VR is being used to speed up physical rehabilitation? Time is of the essence when trying to rehabilitate people who have had a stroke or traumatic brain injury. The earlier rehab begins, the more likely the chance people have to regain any lost functions. It’s possible to develop VR training exercises with machine learning. This means that exercise can be tailored to the individuals particular needs. Researchers have found that after VR therapy, children with cerebral palsy showed a significant improvement in their mobility. VR could be added to conventional rehabilitation techniques to improve outcomes. Research has shown that working with VR can bring in some serious results. 

Can VR help mental health?

It’s only in recent years, that professions have begun to wake up to the importance of mental health. Good mental health is an asset and is also linked to positive physical health. Both of which support positive social and economic outcomes for individuals and society. In a modern knowledge-based economy, mental health is at least as important for performance as physical health. Mental health disorders account for almost a quarter of the total burden of ill health in the UK and unfortunately, mental health conditions are on the rise. But VR seems to have some special therapeutic advantages that could turn this around.

Oxford University recently spent some £4 million testing VR-based therapies against more traditional cognitive behaviour therapies (CBT) with patients suffering from extreme anxiety. Taking part in a VR session in the comfort of their own home made some patients feel safer and more inclined to open up about their anxieties. Moreover, VR made it possible for therapists to expose the patients to their fears – of heights, say, or open spaces, or flying – gradually and in complete safety. Overall, the Oxford study found that the VR therapy was four times more effective than traditional approaches (KTP, 2020).

Anxiety when in hospital is understandable but it can be incredibly draining for the patient. It can also make the work of the hospital staff much harder. VR is beginning to look like a very enticing solution to help patients relax. St Georges Hospital in London ran a pilot study, offering patients the chance to wear a VR headset prior to and during their operation. The headset immersed the patient in calming landscapes throughout their procedure. 100% of the participants reported that their overall hospital experience was improved by wearing the headset, while 94% said they felt more relaxed. Furthermore, 80% said they felt less pain after wearing the headset and 73% reported feeling less anxious. This is a very encouraging report on the positive impact Virtual Reality can have on patient experience.

VR content has been designed to treat issues including alcohol addiction, claustrophobia, teenage depression and eating disorders. Research shows that patients presenting with PTSD and depression respond much better to VR exposure therapy compared to other treatment methods. By using technology, therapists have much more control over the intensity of their patients’ experience. This in turn leads to better treatment outcomes. 

What’s next?

This is an exciting area of development, but rules and clinical standards are needed across the board in order to ensure that VR medical and therapeutic content is safe, high quality and rigorously tested. 

Cambridge neuroscience lecturer Dennis Chan thinks that the most important application of VR testing will be in clinical trials for new Alzheimer’s drugs. Using VR bridges the gap between how drugs are tested on human and animal subjects, making it easier to measure the efficacy of drugs. VR is already being used to help diagnose Alzheimers. The VR tests enabled researchers from the University of Cambridge and University College London to diagnose early stage patients much more accurately than ‘gold standard’ pen and paper cognitive testing. 

Another area of research is looking at how to optimize VR content to yield even better results. How? By going beyond the visual and experimenting with other sensory stimuli, exploring which senses will make the biggest difference to therapeutic outcomes. There are startups working on VR smells!

It’s a fascinating time to be working in this field. To think what benefits could be made to the human experience. Of course, physicians, therapists and patients need to be open to trying this technology in order to reap the benefits. What do you think? Could you pioneer this in your practice?


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