When we think about VR, we tend to associate it with the entertainment genre. Although VR indeed set sails to enhance the demanding gamer’s experience, it has also made significant improvements to the lives of people with autism, lazy eye, chronic pain, and other health conditions. Below are some of the pioneering virtual solutions aimed at changing the face of healthcare as we know it.
Advancing Autism Therapy
According to CDC, 1 percent of the world population has an autism spectrum disorder – the name for a variety if similar conditions, including Asperger syndrome. This corresponds to 3.5 million Americans. At the moment, there is no cure. However, language and speech therapy can help improve the person’s communication abilities and social interactions. As of now, autism therapy involves in-person sessions with the doctor. These trips to the doctor’s office can be significantly lessened.
Startups like Floreo use virtual reality to help make the delivery of therapy simplified so parents can support their offspring from home. Their product uses mobile VR to instigate social interactions with autistic kids by spurring virtual characters in a scene. So, instead of looking at toys on a table, children that need therapy can see a giraffe in a virtual safari park. That aside, the parent or doctor can also tailor the virtual environments and choose the sensory complexity within them. So far, the product seems to have a particularly calming effect on children.
Reducing Chronic Pain
More than 11 percent of Americans (that is 25 million people) suffer from chronic pain, with more and more of them relying on painkillers to make their everyday lives less of a struggle. Considering the opioid epidemic that plagues the country and claims the lives of almost 100 people on a daily basis, healthcare providers seek safer, non-addictive alternatives pronto. Perhaps, the solution could come from VR, as it has been found that virtual therapy can help reduce pain by 25 percent.
Medical VR (virtual reality therapy) has been evidenced to stop the brain from processing pain and reduce pain in hospitalized patients. This, in turns, shortens the length of the patient’s stay in the hospital, which, also lowers the costs of care. Projects like Farmoo, have been created to help distract the minds of chronic patients and focus more on VR worlds that help them alleviate pain and release stress. They have the chance to escape the four walls of the hospital and swim together with whales in a beautiful ocean, join helicopter rides over wonderful landscapes in the Poles, or get involved in activities of a game, rather that their treatment, be it chemotherapy or any other.
Karuna Labs is a company that uses immersive virtual reality to treat chronic pain. Their software diminishes the threat response that causes pain and fix brain incongruities by providing motion and visual-based experiences. According to COO, Jon Weinberg, their product teaches chronic pain sufferers how pain works at various levels of the brain, rehabilitates them, and eventually allows them to live a normal, less painful, life again.
Relaxing Hospitalized Patients
Lying down on a hospital bed counting the days until your release can be a struggle. Patients, especially children, admit being constantly worried about their condition, missing their family and friends, and getting a sensation that time has stopped in the hospital. Luckily, companies like VisitU provide patients with a downloadable app and virtual glasses which allow them to get in touch with their home and loved ones at any time of the day or night. Also, medical VR makes it easier for friends and relatives to maintain relations with the hospitalized person, sparing the lengthy drives to the hospital and spending quality time without time constrains.
Restoring Low Vision
Low vision is a visual impairment that has affected around 135 million peopleglobally. It can either be age-related (45 percent of all low-vision cases) or caused by an eye-affecting injury, disorder, or disease (i.e. diabetes). Low vision cannot be corrected by surgery, medicine or glasses and severely affects the patient’s ability to do their everyday tasks.
Until now, the patient had no other choice but to just live with it. Products like IrisVision, though, help the low vision patient regain their sight via a VR experience. IrisVision is a team led by Dr. Frank Weblin, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of California, who worked on providing patients with a way to magnify desired objects in the visual scene without losing awareness of the overall environment around them. The user gets to choose the magnification they wish, along with things like contrast, ambient level, and text options, and perform eye-hand coordinated activities (i.e. playing the piano or scrambling eggs) with relative ease.
Enhancing Physicians Care to Elderly
Seniors deal with aging and the problems that it brings; problems that young doctors cannot easily understand, if at all. The big age difference between the health care provider and a 70-year-old patient creates a disconnection between the two. But, what if doctors could actually see how it feels to be an older person in their 70s, to grow old, to recover from stroke, or after you have lost one of your fingers?
We Are Alfred is a VR-powered product created by Embodied Labs that aims to let young medical students understand what’s it like to live as a 74-year-old man with visual and hearing impairments. Each user can be an Alfred for 7 minutes and experience life from the older patient’s perspective. Hopefully, this kind of work can bridge the gap between caregivers and elderly patients and provide even better care to the seniors of this world.
Speeding up Recovery After Traumatic Brain Injury
It has been widely accepted that the earlier a patient who survived a stroke starts rehabilitation, the better his/her chances for regaining the functions they have lost. Mindmaze is a Swiss app that allows patients to practice how to move their fingers or lift their arms in a fun fashion with the help of VR. Although patients do not carry out the actual movement, their engagement, motivation, and attention is notably improved with audio-visual feedback, which could speed the recovery of traumatized nervous systems.
Today, only a handful of medical students can attend an operation and peek over the shoulder of a surgeon. Virtual reality can bring the learning and teaching experience in medicine to a higher level by allowing surgeons to stream operations globally using a virtual reality camera. Medical students, on the other hand, can use their VR goggles, step into the OR, and see every procedure and trick performed down to the last detail. This was first introduced in 2016, when cancer surgeon Shafi Ahmed performed an operation at the Royal London hospital using a VR camera connected to the Medical Realities website. That gave real-time access to all interested parties that wished to participate in the operation, including worried relatives and journalists.
From autism and low eye vision to chronic pain, VR’s immersive technology is proving to be a revolutionary solution to cases where conventional methods fail. Plus, it provides an affordable and safe way for patients to better their lives and regain the life they have lost due to pain or other health-related issues. With all that in mind, it won’t surprise us if VR therapies take center stage in the US healthcare system in the near future.
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