Could Virtual Reality Be the Next Innovation in Medicine?

The technology seems promising but still has drawbacks

Could Virtual Reality Be the Next Innovation in Medicine?
Image: Pixabay
September 1, 2016

Anesthesia. Vaccines. Transplants. VR?

The pace of technological innovation seems to be speeding up every day, including within the medical field. People are constantly coming up with ideas that save time, money, and even lives. Now, a few hospitals are taking an idea straight from the pages of science fiction and applying it in real life to help their patients manage pain.

Virtual Reality as Pain Relief

Although virtual reality is still in the experimental states as a treatment approach, says Bloomberg, supporters claim that it may be effective in treating all kinds of maladies from pain to Alzheimer's to depression. And now that companies like Facebook and Sony are working on building their own VR equipment, the price of the necessary hardware has fallen, making VR a more feasible option for hospitals seeking alternative methods for relieving pain.

The idea is simple. Pain can be alleviated by manipulating how human minds work: the more it focuses on pain, the worse it will feel. If the brain is immersed in an overload of sensory inputs—such as that experienced in virtual reality—it will be less able to process pain, i.e. to be conscious of it.

Take your mind off your troubles and your troubles disappear. Or at least lessen.

"Pain is our harm alarm and it does a really good job of getting our attention," said Beth Darnall, clinical associate professor at Stanford Health Care's division of pain medicine. According to Darnall, VR—which Stanford has studied—can be used as a psychological tool, like meditation, to "calm the nervous system, and that dampens the pain processing."

Patients participating in research conducted by psychologists Hunter Hoffman and Walter Meyer at Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston and in similar research by Dave Patterson at Seattle's Harborview Burn Center reported feeling less discomfort. Magnetic resonance imaging scans of the patients' brains revealed that they had not only felt less pain, they actually had experienced less pain.

"It's too early"

Virtual reality supporters note that the technology may have a big advantage over drugs, which a patient can become tolerant of and even addicted to over time. However, the efficacy of VR has not yet been proven, especially in cases of chronic pain. What happens when the patient removes the headset?

"We know that relaxation techniques like hypnosis, yoga, and meditation decrease your perception of pain, so VR has a lot of promise, but it's too early for it to be the standard of care," said Houman Danesh, director of integrative pain management at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital. "It's a very young technology."

Much more research will be necessary before virtual reality will become widely accepted as a medical treatment. Brennan Spiegel, Cedars-Sinai gastroenterologist and director of health services research, will shortly be conducting a study with many more patients, and so far there have been a range of reactions to the idea: younger patients are more open to it than older ones; one patient with a terminal illness refused to even think about it; and one woman who had been suffering from abdominal pain experienced so much relief right away that she went out and bought a headset for herself.

Spiegel is excited about the technology. "As a scientist, I want to understand rigorously how something like virtual reality can truly improve health outcomes compared to a control population. Virtual reality undoubtedly has an effect on the human mind."

A Happy Accident

The possibility of using virtual reality as a pain management tool was discovered unintentionally by Tom Furness, professor of industrial engineering at the University of Washington and, according to Bloomberg, the man "considered to be the godfather of VR by his peers." He began thinking about VR when he was serving in the Air Force 50 years ago, and since that time he has developed more than 20 research projects into actual companies.

One of these was a consumer headset using a television tuner and videotapes. It was 1993 and the headset cost $799. It failed commercially because of the limited amount of content available, but many dentists bought it to use in their offices.

"The dentists loved it because their patients weren't complaining," Furness said. Wearing a headset distracted children from being afraid of injects, drilling, and getting fillings.

This led to further research into other pain relief techniques, such as distraction and meditation. But the costs of VR equipment have been prohibitive, especially for hospitals: early headsets cost as much as $35,000 for a single unit, according to Hunter Hoffman.

But that is all starting to change. Facebook's Oculus Rift Headset costs consumers $599, while HTC's Vive comes in at $799. In order for these to work, consumers need a $999 computer to run the software. And the market continues to grow.

Now that prices are down, some hospitals may be willing to experiment with the technology. The U.S. spends $3 trillion annually on healthcare, and hospital care can take up to roughly 30 percent of that amount. Compared with the cost of keeping a patient in the hospital one more day, the cost of a headset and software is small.

And there are some companies that are already trying to turn VR development into a profitable business: AppliedVR supplies headsets and therapeutic software to hospitals, and DeepStream VR is developing systems and software to help patients who have burns and other injuries.

One Remaining Challenge

Developers will have to work hard to keep patients interested and thereby relieved of pain. One teenage patient who initially experienced relief upon first using the headset quickly became bored with the game programmed into it and then began to feel more pain.