Healthcare Goes Virtual

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Laura ReagenVirtual reality opens up new worlds within care delivery, clinical research 

By Laura Reagen

Virtual reality (VR) technology is about much more than just video games these days, especially if you’re a healthcare professional, researcher or student. Academic and healthcare facilities across the nation are just beginning to explore the boundaries of both VR and augmented reality (AR) in a variety of exciting ways.

Some are making sizeable investments in this promising new technology. Last year, the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) broke ground on a $122 million facility which will help health care professionals, such as physicians, nurses and medical students, train for basic and advanced skills using visualization and simulation. The Davis Global Center will house the university’s iEXCEL program and feature its state-of-the-art EON Reality VR Innovation Academy, designed to develop AR/VR skills within the community and enhance workforce development. An entire level of this nearly 200,000-square-foot facility is dedicated to “visualization”— 3D, immersive environments that transport students and healthcare professionals into a pediatric unit or an intensive care unit. Additional levels of the facility are dedicated to surgical simulation and hands-on patient simulation in completely replicated healthcare environments.

Researchers at UNMC believe that this unique approach will be a highly effective way to train the next generation of healthcare professionals through real-world simulation and visualization.



“The idea is to practice not just hands-on technical skills but also interprofessional team training, communication and critical thinking skills, so we can transition patients safely through the healthcare system,” said Dr. Pamela Boyers, Vice Chancellor, iEXCEL at UNMC. “The whole center is designed to provide experiential training opportunities which lead to the highest quality patient care.”

Putting young adults with autism behind the (virtual) wheel
Other academic and healthcare institutions are using this technology to support patients directly, even outside the clinical setting. In one such program, Vanderbilt University is employing a highly advanced VR simulator to help young adults diagnosed with autism learn to drive a car. Individuals with this disorder may have trouble with certain activities of daily living (ADLs), especially complex tasks like driving. Researchers at Vanderbilt designed the simulator to include multiple levels, each addressing the common sensory processing, emotional and behavioral challenges these young adults face in learning to drive.

Even so-called “neurotypical” teens can get frustrated and stressed while learning to drive and these feelings are amplified for individuals with autism. That’s why researchers at Vanderbilt designed the simulator to tailor its lessons based on each individual’s current emotional state and attention level. This is made possible through psychological monitoring of heart rate, sweating, skin conducting and even brain waves through an EEG.

“We essentially created an artificial intelligence algorithm that determines each individuals’ stress and engagement,” said Nilanjan Sarkar, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of Mechanical Engineering at Vanderbilt. “This is incredibly useful because we can determine whether the individual is feeling bored or challenged during a lesson, whether they are paying attention, and most importantly, how stressed they are during the experience.”

Managing opioid use disorder
The real-time visual feedback provided by VR is also a benefit to clinicians looking to support patients with addiction, including opioid use disorder.
Dr. Patrick Bordnick, dean and professor of the Tulane School of Social Work in New Orleans, developed a VR app designed to help people with addiction disorders avoid relapses. (Dr. Bordnick’s work was funded in part by a financial award by the Not Impossible Awards, a non-profit program that receives financial backing from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.) His new smart-phone enabled app puts users in a common scenario containing a variety of “triggers” that are likely to cause cravings. For example, a scenario might transport the app user into a social gathering or party where they can see and hear others drinking alcohol or using drugs.

“We initially tested out VR in the area of smoking cessation, as smoking is such a huge driver of healthcare costs and preventable death in this country,” said Dr. Bordnick. “But given the current opioid epidemic, we also realized that it was time to expand the app into a more comprehensive addiction resource, giving individuals the tools they need to cope with common triggers that drive relapse.”

The next generation of VR-enabled care delivery
Studies and programs like these are just the beginning of this exciting trend, especially as they inspire other clinical researchers and medical professionals to test the bounds of VR and AR. Proven outcomes related to the use of this technology are now being published in peer-reviewed journals within specialties ranging from pain management to behavioral health. And as VR technology experiences greater mainstream adoption and becomes more cost-effective, experts expect that new uses for it will continue to emerge. That’s likely good news for patients and medical professionals. 

LAURA REAGEN is the Creative Director of Activate Health, a Phoenix and Nashville-based marketing firm. Activate Health specializes in providing marketing, advertising and public relations support to entities across the healthcare industry including health technology firms, hospitals, health plans and health systems. Laura is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Arizona State University.

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