Posts Tagged ‘augmented reality in healthcare’

Guest Post: Clinicians and Developers Take Healthcare to New Heights Through Virtual Reality Technology

October 25th, 2018 by Laura Reagen

Hospitals and medical centers are using virtual reality and augmented reality technologies to assist in a variety of clinical applications.


What does a theme park game complete with roller coasters and thrill rides have to do with identifying cardiovascular birth defects in the womb? Both are the latest in virtual reality (VR), and among the many innovative experiences designed by some of today’s leading tech companies. What started out as fun and games has turned into a serious business for many VR developers, as well as the healthcare organizations they serve. In fact, all of healthcare is going virtual in a big way, as hospitals and medical centers use VR and augmented reality (AR) technologies to assist in a variety of clinical applications.

Using VR To Distract Patients From Pain

Prominent names in healthcare like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital are among these organizations. St. Jude is exploring the use of VR as a way to distract children and teens from the intense pain that accompanies sickle cell disease. People with sickle cell disease have abnormally-shaped blood cells, which makes it difficult for these cells to navigate through tiny blood vessels throughout the body in order to deliver oxygen. When this blood flow is disrupted, it can be incredibly painful. Unfortunately, the IV medications used to manage this pain may not immediately ease the suffering of many patients.

To address that issue, the hospital is hoping to bring relief to these young people through an innovative study that will use virtual reality as a distraction technique while this IV medication is administered. Patients will be able to dive into the ocean, experience marine wildlife and navigate through sunken ruins through an innovative VR app, which clinicians hope will divert their attention away from their intense discomfort.

This particular application may not come as a surprise for anyone who has tried the real deal in VR—not just cardboard phone-enabled headsets but instead the sophisticated gaming systems like the Oculus Rift or HTC Hive. The idea of managing pain through this immersive experience isn’t far-fetched once you’re strapped inside a headset that controls your entire visual field and allows you to “virtually” walk inside of spectacular landscapes. It can distract you from all kinds of stimuli, both within your body and outside of it. This concept of distraction from pain and discomfort is one that is just beginning to find its way into the halls of many hospitals and prominent healthcare institutions.

Reducing the Reliance on Pain Meds During Labor and Delivery

At the forefront of this shift is Phoenix-based Banner Health. Physicians and researchers there are exploring the use of VR in the delivery room, in an effort to understand whether this intervention could help patients deal with labor pain and reduce the need for narcotic medications. Banner had already tried out virtual reality as a mechanism for training healthcare professionals. Then Dr. Mike Foley heard from other clinicians about the value of VR following surgery. Some felt using this technology in the recovery room could reduce the need for post-surgery pain medication and even drive earlier discharge from same-day surgery. Given the current opioid epidemic, Dr. Foley wanted to use this idea to help women deal with labor pain while receiving less opioids. This, in turn, could lead to safer deliveries and easier transitions home for both moms and babies. Dr. Foley and his team at Banner just completed a small randomized study of 20, which showed promising results in this area.

Pioneering the Use of VR in Managing Phobias and Pain

The origins of using VR in the area of pain management date back to some of the earliest days of this technology. Dr. Hunter Hoffman first heard about the potential for VR through a prominent researcher who was using it to help patients overcome a fear of heights. He decided to try a similar technique to assist a psychologist treating individuals with arachnophobia. Out of this very specific need, “Spider World” was born. The application was a means of exposure therapy, allowing individuals to gradually increase their interactions with fear-inducing scenarios.

This effort took place in the 1990s—when VR hardware and software were just emerging but were still cumbersome and costly. In fact, the hardware Dr. Hoffman used in these early efforts included a 75-lb supercomputer and helmets that weighed nearly eight pounds. But from this early iteration, Dr. Hoffman expanded his use of VR, ultimately developing a “Snow World” designed to help burn victims manage the pain associated with their injuries. Dr. Hoffman collaborated closely with Dr. Dave Patterson of the Harborview Burn Center on the effort, and is still using this same technique (albeit with much more affordable and lighter systems in place!) 20 years later. He is also at the forefront of using VR to help treat patients with post-traumatic stress disorder many of whom are veterans.

Pairing Clinical Best Practices With VR Expertise

For developers that specialize in creating virtual experiences, the future looks especially bright. As healthcare embraces this new technology as a natural extension of the clinical setting, VR could become more synonymous with treating patients than entertaining gamers. Those at the forefront of this trend, like St. Jude and Banner Health, will continue to publish their results and may inspire others to enter this “new world” of care delivery.

Laura Reagen

Laura Reagen

About the Author: 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.