Virtual reality is undoubtedly the domineering technological trend of 2016. While the current focus is on the entertainment possibilities this technology offers, a number of other industries are investigating how VR could be of benefit, and none more so than the healthcare industry. From mental health therapies to physical operations and everything in between, VR could revolutionize the healthcare industry and greatly improve how we diagnose and treat and our illnesses.
A study published today in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that virtual reality can help people who suffer from severe paranoia by enabling them to face their fears in a safe and controlled environment. Severe paranoia affects around 1-2% of the population, and is a common feature among many mental health disorders. The condition results in an extreme mistrust of other people, leading the patient to believe strangers are trying to harm them, and can become so incapacitating that patients find it impossible to leave their homes.
People who suffer from severe paranoia typically develop coping mechanisms, such as avoiding eye contact, to minimize social interactions. This behaviour only reinforces the condition as it leads patients to believe that their coping mechanisms enable them to avoid anxiety inducing situations.
To conduct the study, the team from Oxford University invited thirty patients to participate in virtual reality simulations of standing on a train and in a lift. An increasing number of avatars were added to the simulations, recreating the experiencing of standing in a crowded space, something which would cause most patients to experience acute anxiety. Some patients were instructed to use their normal defence behaviours while others were encouraged to try new tactics such as maintaining eye contact with an avatar or standing close to a group. Those who tried the second approach showed substantial improvement over their paranoia, with over 50% of these patients reporting no severe paranoia by the end of the treatment.
Even those who used coping mechanisms experienced some relief, as around 20% of these patients reported no severe paranoia at the end of the day. Although further testing will need to be conducted to understand the long-term effects of this treatment, it’s a promising start and offers hope to those who find no solution in traditional therapy and drugs.
Virtual reality has been used in part to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since the 90’s, but has only come into prominence in the last few years thanks to recent advances in VR technology. Over 60 sites, including hospitals and military bases, are using a VR therapy from the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies to treat PTSD in American veterans. ICT’s Bravemind Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy recreates battlefield situations from Iraq and Afghanistan, allowing veterans to explore traumatic memories at their own pace in a safe and controlled environment. This type of exposure therapy gives the patient control over their memories, helping them to understand and move on from trauma.
In addition to helping soldiers come to terms with traumatic memories, VR is also proving to be a very suitable application for pain management. Developed by a team of researchers at the University of Washington Seattle, the interactive VR video-game SnowWorld has been used to help multiple patients suffering from severe burns at the University’s Harborview Burn Center. While opioids are sufficient for pain management during periods of rest, such medicines have proved inadequate at providing relief during wound care and treatment.
SnowWorld provides relief during wound care by transporting patients to a calming, magical snow filled environment complete with friendly snowmen and reindeer. The researchers behind SnowWorld found that pain perception has a strong psychological element, in that awareness of pain heightens the sensation and causes the patient to suffer more. The computer-generated environments found in VR distract the patient from their pain by refocusing their attention on a virtual world. Subsequent MRI scans found that playing SnowWorld reduces the brain’s pain signals, enabling greater control over chronic pain management.
The above are just some of the many ways virtual reality is transforming healthcare. From reducing severe paranoia to improving pain management, VR is benefiting patients across the world. However, it’s not just patients using VR to improve their lives, and an increasing number of health care providers are exploring what VR has to offer. In the second part of the blog, we’ll look at how virtual reality is helping the healthcare industry become more impartial, and how it can be used to show healthy people what it’s like to live with an illness.
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