In a growing virtual world driven by artificial intelligence and automation, healthcare providers are rethinking their strategies in order to take advantage of simulated environments that can provide new, safer, and more effective training procedures and therapies.
The virtual reality market size is expected to reach $62.1 billion globally by 2027, with a CAGR of 21.6% for the period. With compelling cases made for virtual conferencing, real-estate, and tourism applications, VR has also increasingly proven itself as an effective tool in healthcare environments. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has now given medical professionals and institutions a revolutionary new set of tools that could change the way we approach the field.
Although VR technology has seen challenges in encumbering headsets and display units, a new generation of lightweight, self-contained devices could finally bring virtual applications into the mainstream.
VR and COVID-19
George Washington University Hospital (GWUH) in the US has been experimenting with VR technology to look into a patient’s lungs in an effort to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the first patient with COVID-19 was transferred to the hospital, it became clear the rapid and progressive damage to the lungs would require unprecedented levels of support from ventilators. There’s a stark difference between virus-infected lung tissue and the adjacent healthy areas; however, for the general public, it wasn't entirely clear how the virus affected the respiratory system — and preventive measures were being only slowly incorporated into daily life.
Faced with a deadly disease and a completely new prevention campaign, the hospital decided to create a virtual reality flythrough of COVID-19 infected lungs. The visualization shows how the body reacts to the virus by creating inflammation zones, severely damaging both lungs that can have life-long implications.
The creators hope that the demonstration will startle viewers and motivate the more stubborn members of the public to keep themselves and others safe by staying home, washing their hands, and following precautions to minimize the risk of contagion.
VR Healthcare Initiatives
The GWUH program is just one example of how researchers can use VR to educate a wider audience about a disease. Visual representations are, after all, a powerful means of learning.
There are, however, many other uses for VR in healthcare. The technology has been used to show medical students an internal view of the body on top of a real person’s physique.
VR has also been used to introduce patients to future surgeries, for example, showing a person a digitized version of their brain alongside the problem the surgeon will need to fix and the procedure that will be used to do it. These tools can help surgeons as well, as they allow them to plan their interventions and prepare for different unexpected scenarios.
Below are some of the most widely used VR applications and the companies behind them.
Health Scholars’ simulations are co-developed with emergency medical services (EMS) agencies and hospitals like Cedars Sinai and New York City Health & Hospital. The company offers VR training solutions specifically designed for first responders and clinicians and addresses emergency care training for adult and pediatric scenarios, general care, and obstetric settings.
Surgical Theater has partnerships with The Mayo Clinic, UCLA School of Medicine, St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, and the Stanford School of Medicine. Their ‘surgical rehearsal platform’ uses precision VR for neurosurgical procedures. The technology allows for better pre-operative planning and lets patients see their own future procedures in VR scenarios.
OxfordVR has partnerships with the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and the McPin Foundation. Their apps have won the 2020 MedTech award for Best Mental Health Immersive Technology. OxfordVR’s virtual reality focuses on dealing with symptoms of mental disorders and fears.
FundamentalVR won an Interactive Innovation Award at SXSW 2019 and was named one of Time Magazine’s best inventions of 2018. Their VR simulations are accredited by the Royal College of Surgeons of London and jointly developed with the Mayo Clinic. Their simulator-like training for surgeons provides controlled environments that include haptic elements for tactile feedback.
Medical Augmented Intelligence
This company offers immersive VR training for anatomy and acupuncture and is currently used by the Beijing University of Chinese medicine, Kiang Wu Nursing College of Macau, and the Davao Medical School Foundation. With partners that include NVIDIA, Intel, and Vive, Medical Augmented Intelligence can convert 2D medical images into VR models in less than 30 seconds.
The VR Healthcare Market
VR and augmented reality (AR) have changed what’s possible in the medical field. Even in its early stages, pioneering apps in training and patient education show immense potential for the healthcare market as a whole.
In the US, the VR Healthcare Market is estimated at $101.4 million, with the country accounting for a 30% share of the global market. China is forecast to grow to an estimated market size of $369 million by 2027, trailing a CAGR of 29.6%. Japan and Canada also forecast growths in the range of 26 to 28% for the 2020-2027 period.
In March, when COVID-19 was just beginning to show its devastating reach, many doctors and nurses were faced with completely new testing and management procedures. Two months later, a Taiwanese phone brand had already developed a VR system, the SimX VR. The app teaches medical professionals how to treat patients affected by the virus using goggles and control sticks. Because of it, doctors and nurses can now test their skills without any risk to them or their patients.
With processing power and cloud computing allowing for faster, better processing and communication, and a new generation of lighter and cheaper headsets, it’s not hard to imagine a future where simulation tools like VR training and patient onboarding become an essential part of global healthcare.
About the Author
Yisela Alvarez Trentini is an Anthropologist + User Experience / Human-Computer Interaction Designer with an interest in emerging technologies, social robotics, and VR/AR.