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Virtual reality playing a role in health care

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Virtual reality is increasingly being used in health care, as in this demonstration at a recent event. Photo by Sharon Fisher.

This is the second story in a three-part series on virtual reality. 

We’re a ways from using it in areas such as surgery and other medical procedures, but virtual reality (VR) is playing an increasingly larger role in health care.

VR in health care is a booming market. Starting at just $525 million in 2012, the market grew to $976 by 2017, according to Markets and Markets. By 2025, the VR and Augmented Reality (AR) health care industry will be $5.1 billion, according to Grand View Research. Yet another study found that health care virtual reality is expected to grow at a CAGR of 54.5 percent through 2023, according to a report from Research and Markets, while Technavio analysts forecast growth of 28.15 percent from 2019 to 2023.

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Howard Rose

With its background in gaming, VR’s ability to gamify health care outcomes such as rehabilitation, and its immersive traits that help distract patients from pain, apprehension, or boredom, make it useful. While people’s first thought is often performing surgery remotely, that’s just the beginning, said Howard Rose, CEO of Firsthand Technology, a Seattle-based VR health care company.

“There’s more to VR than surgical simulation,” said Rose, who spoke on Nov. 16 to the Idaho Virtual Reality Council. It can also be used in areas such as mental health, lifestyle, pain relief, and wellness, he said. VR has five “super powers,” he said: It’s immersive, interactive, psychological, cognitive, and emotional.

Pain relief is a particularly promising area, because using VR for it can not only reduce the pain itself, but can also do so at a lower cost – and with less chance of addiction – than by using opioids, Rose said. A number of studies found that using VR, compared with opioids, produced better outcomes in areas such as unpleasantness reduction, time spent thinking about pain, and the amount of fun, he said. Moreover, VR often lasts longer, he said.

“VR has a profound, lasting effect,” Rose said. “It’s not just a distraction.”

In addition to pain relief, VR can also be used in conjunction with therapy for mental health care, such as simulations, phobia cures, and realigning a distorted sense of self, Rose said. “It’s not replacing the therapist, it’s enhancing the ability to provide therapy.”

The complication is finding a way to deliver VR in a clinical fashion, Rose said. “What’s the dose of a game?”

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Shelly Gorman

In Idaho, the Saint Alphonsus Health System is fundraising to expand and remodel its Boise infusion room, where patients receive chemotherapy and other supportive medications either intravenously or through a port, said Shelly Gorman, regional service line director for oncology and general surgery. Part of that renovation is expected to include support for VR, she said. “We’re using a portion of the funds raised to bring VR experiences to our patients while they’re spending hours undergoing chemotherapy and other treatment,” she said.

For example, the clinic could use VR’s immersion ability to help treat the nausea that such treatments sometimes produce, Gorman said. “Maybe they’re traveling, or maybe they’re getting away to the beach,” she said. “We plan to have a wide range of experiences available to them.” Providing VR would cost from $30,000 to $40,000, she said.

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Keri Monson

In addition, VR could help reduce pain and anxiety for such patients, said Keri Monson, nursing supervisor for cancer care infusion. “Pain creates anxiety, and a lot of our cancer patients are pain patients,” she said. Chemotherapy itself can also cause pain, she added.

photo of st. luke's virtual care center

St. Luke’s Virtual Care Center doesn’t yet support virtual reality, but it may in the future. Photo courtesy of St. Luke’s.

The St. Luke’s Virtual Care Center, which opened in August, is a Boise-based “virtual hospital,” intended to provide people in remote, underserved communities with access to specialty and emergency providers without having to make a trip to Boise. While the facility doesn’t yet offer VR or AR functionality, that could happen in the future, said Krista Stadler, senior director of telehealth services. “We don’t have plans to date,” she said. “We are definitely keeping tabs on what is happening nationally with other health services.”

St. Luke’s is looking at VR to see how it might apply in Idaho, whether in the hospital, in clinics, or in patients’ homes, Stadler said. “The goal would be to find out how that application would be most effective, and for what conditions, and how to deploy it,” she said.

About Sharon Fisher