If you haven’t been keeping up with what virtual reality (VR) is doing in healthcare, you’re going to want to catch up. Not only is healthcare a major adopter of this fast-developing technology, it’s one that stands to see itself and its standards changed as healthcare solutions increasingly begin to incorporate VR to improve results and overhaul the patient experience.

The industry has already warmly welcomed the use of VR to simulate surgery, treat phobias and simplify the diagnosis process, but recently we’ve seen its potential popping up in new areas. Here are four that you should pay particular attention to as the year unfolds.

Virtual Reality as a Pain Killer

Chronic pain is a pressing, but seldom-discussed issue in American society, earning itself the name “the silent epidemic.” The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reports that over 100 million Americans struggle with chronic pain. With the rise in awareness of the overprescription of opioids, much of the industry has turned its attention toward alternative treatments.

Enter virtual reality healthcare solutions.

While VR has proven successful in addressing procedural and acute pain through distraction, the use of the technology to address chronic pain is relatively new, but showing promise. A study published last year in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE found that patients who suffered from chronic pain showed positive results from exposure to a five-minute VR session. The majority of patients saw a decrease in pain ratings from pre-session to post-session, with 100 percent of patients showing some decrease during their sessions.

The use of VR to treat chronic pain is new, so expect to see more developments, especially as the need for non-opioid treatments becomes more crucial to national health.

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VR Enhances Robotic Surgery

Another application advancement combines VR with telemedicine: remote, robotic surgery. Virtual robotic surgery is a simple concept — a human surgeon performs actions that are executed by a robotic device that is performing the actual operation.

This marrying of two healthcare tech favorites has been found to decrease the time needed to perform an operation and the risk of complications. The tricky part — the tactical feedback a surgeon gets when directly operating on a patient — is handled through “force feedback,” allowing evaluation of the optimal amount of pressure needed.

Like other major trends in healthcare solutions where outside technology advancements are being leveraged to improve healthcare results, expect to see a continuing merger between virtual reality and telemedicine.

Connecting Older People With the Outside World

You might think of VR as a technology for the young and highly technical, but don’t count older users out.

Just last month, MIT startup Rendever won the school’s Sloan Healthcare Innovations Prize pitch competition with a VR platform. The healthcare solution connects residents of assisted-living facilities with the world outside their walls. This seemingly small innovation can help fight isolation and factors that contribute to depression, helping to keep older minds healthy and happy.

The company touts the headset-based platform’s ability to allow residents to revisit their homes as well as other memories such as their favorite park, where they were married or even a museum in Paris. Rendever uses Samsung Gear VR headsets and has the ability to track movement data to catch dementia in its early stages. This data collection can help healthcare professionals tailor treatment plans and implement preventative care.

Virtual Reality Is Accelerating Stroke Care

As the American Heart Association documents increased incidences of strokes in younger populations, new ways of addressing stroke recovery, especially those involving tech, will become increasingly useful.

Time is a huge factor in the recovery rate for stroke patients, and VR is currently being used to improve those rates. One app in particular, MindMotion Pro, helps patients relearn how to use their arms and fingers. The neurorehabilitation app uses VR to encourage early motor rehabilitation in stroke.

The technology supports individual recovery goals and personalized exercise regimens, and features exercises based on recognized neurorehabilitation principles. It also provides benefits for caregivers, including better patient performance monitoring and streamlined use of facility resources.

Going Deeper

This gaming-based innovation brings with it an extension of the individual self that reaches into training for professionals, mental health improvements and even new opportunities for people with disabilities. With so much of the industry heavily focused on patient satisfaction and the patient experience, keep an eye out for VR health solutions being used in ways that diffuse many of the unpleasant experiences inherent to the healthcare industry.

Learn more about the applications of VR both inside and outside of the healthcare space.

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Megan Williams

Megan Williams is a consultant and writer who specializes in healthcare technology. She has over a decade’s experience in hospital revenue cycle consulting and holds an MBA with a focus on international business, as well as a degree in hospital administration. She works with growing and established healthcare B2B companies in creating work that is in touch with the latest developments in healthcare, and maintains her work at LocutusHealth.com

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