Teletherapy, AI, VR — The Future of Mental Health Care

By Yisela Alvarez Trentini Monday, October 26, 2020

The rate of people adopting telehealth services is increasing dramatically, with the market expected to reach a projected value of $559.52 billion by 2027. Thanks to advances in information and communication technologies, providers are overcoming distance barriers in order to offer diverse patient populations improved access to healthcare.

The telehealth market, which includes telemedicine and technology-enabled healthcare services, covers prevention, patient monitoring, and continuous medical education.

Initially focused on alarm services for elderly and vulnerable people, telehealth now uses a range of devices (such as blood pressure readers, pulse oximeters, and blood glucose monitors) to collect data to create better therapeutic options. Several services can be accessed via mobile phones and apps and supported by assistive technologies and environmental controls.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, these advances have allowed patients to be discharged earlier from hospitals, receiving treatment from the comfort of their homes and reducing the dependency on primary health services.

The Advantages of Telehealth

Although some patients had already begun to experience the benefits of dealing with physical injury, chronic pain, and stress using virtual reality headsets, it wasn’t until 2020 that healthcare professionals were forced to implement new ways of providing care to large numbers of people.

The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 increased the burden on hospitals and physicians, now challenged also by the need to maintain social distancing. Consequently, many people adopted teleconsultation and remote monitoring services, aided by new digital health platforms and advances in hardware.

Because teleconsultations are cost-effective and reduce outpatient waiting times, many of these initiatives are being actively supported by governments and international organizations. For example, in April 2020, Tyto Care, an Israeli-based company, was awarded USD 50 million in investment to expand its clinical examination devices to the US, Asia, and Europe.

As healthcare costs increase yearly due to the rising prevalence and chronic diseases and an aging population, technology-driven platforms become a necessity. Telehealth fulfills the requirements, so the market is expected to continue its steady growth.

VR and Mental Health Care

Up until recently, augmented and virtual reality (VR) treatments had only been tried in inpatient settings. However, with VR headsets and gaming platforms becoming more commercially available, therapy has moved from the clinic to the patient’s home.

Mental health care initiatives using VR have been successfully tried for stress and anxiety, cognitive function issues, neurological disorders, and spinal cord injuries.

Although face-to-face therapy remains the optimal treatment method, VR-based counseling has been proven to be more effective than Skype or Zoom therapy. The difference is that unlike phone or video calls, virtual reality can create a multi-sensory immersive and interactive environment.

Researchers from the University of Wollongong in Australia reported that VR patients perceived higher levels of realism, engagement, “presence” (being there), “co-presence” (being together with the therapist), and “social presence” (engaging with each other) compared to video and call ones. Using a virtual avatar also encouraged participants to express themselves more freely and without fear of judgment.

Virtual and augmented reality can be used in various novel ways to support patients with mental health care. For example, it’s been demonstrated that people usually retain information learned in virtual reality better than in written or oral formats. In terms of skills training, VR can help a therapist provide education about a diagnosis, share skills to deal with symptoms, and teach useful cognitive strategies.

Immersive experiences hijack the senses and attention, making it easier not to think about stressors or negative emotions. Sensory stimulation can also combat stress and the low energy and mood it causes by providing new pleasurable activities, stimulating people who are withdrawn due to depression.

VR can also simulate experiences in a controlled manner, desensitizing patients to situations and environments that are scary or triggering. The most evidence-based reported uses of VR involve anxiety disorders (including social anxiety, public speaking, agoraphobia, fear of flying, and fear of spiders), addiction, pain, PTSD, eating disorders, autism, and schizophrenia.

The Future of the Telehealth Market

The telehealth market has seen a significant increase in the number of start-up businesses centered on telemedicine, patient monitoring, and education, and a bright developing segment focused on using virtual reality to deliver and enhance treatments.

In 2019 XRHealth, a telehealth clinic with VR-powered treatments, unveiled a connected health platform that allows patients to use high bandwidth technology in either rural or urban areas. 77% of their patients recovering from injury or dealing with persistent emotional difficulties saw positive results within two weeks. Their services are currently available across the USA for patients with or without insurance.

In January 2020, the University of California at San Francisco announced they were partnering with AppliedVR to launch a business accelerator for expanding the digital therapeutic platform. Through physicians recommending a prescribed app - such as mHealth or vTime - and a headset, they intend to create an immersive and interactive environment to deliver pain management for diverse patients, especially in vulnerable populations.

The telehealth market, with services on the lead, is projected to reach $559.52 billion by 2027, with a CAGR of 25.2% for the 2020-2027 period. North America will most likely hold the highest market share, followed by Europe (where a regulatory scenario favors the rapid adoption of remote monitoring services), Asia-Pacific (aided by advances in digital imaging), Latin America, and the Middle East.

Telehealth is a cost-effective solution for healthcare providers and patients, allowing people to have more independence and comfort. As Dr. Kim Bullock, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, states, "VR is not a form of therapy, but a tool of therapy." Yet, one that can provide more accurate patient data to healthcare providers and create engaging and immersive programs.

About the Author


Headshot of Yisela Alvarez Trentini

Yisela Alvarez Trentini is an Anthropologist + User Experience / Human-Computer Interaction Designer with an interest in emerging technologies, social robotics, and VR/AR.

Related Articles