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Healthcare Focuses on the Possibilities of Virtual Reality

The mHealth platform may be an ideal tool for pain and stress management, behavioral health therapy, even mobility training for stroke and spinal cord injury patients.

By Eric Wicklund

- Virtual Reality headsets like Samsung Gear, Google Cardboard and Oculus Rift might seem more suited to the gaming industry, but healthcare providers are finding a use for them as well.

Photo Courtesy AppliedVR

VR headsets are popping up in clinical studies across the globe, in projects ranging from pain control to stress relief to physical and behavioral therapy. Researchers see the technology as a tool to “train the brain” to reinforce good habits and get rid of old ones.

VR “has proven over the past couple of years that it can completely change your … perception of the world,” says David Rhew, MD, Samsung’s chief medical officer and head of healthcare and fitness. “This could be a very interesting and very powerful non-narcotic adjunct” for many different therapies.

At Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, Brennan Spiegel, MD, MSHS, is launching the largest VR-based clinical study to date, focused on applying the technology to in-patient pain management, narcotic use, hospital length of stay and patient satisfaction. He’s working with AppliedVR, a Los Angeles-based mHealth company (Cedars-Sinai is an investor in the company) and one of the leaders in bringing VR technology to healthcare.

“There are many potential opportunities [in VR therapy] that we should be looking at,” says Spiegel, a gastroenterologist who’has treated more than 300 patients with VR so far. An earlier, smaller study, he says, found that VR technology reduced a patient’s pain level by about 25 percent when compared to watching a relaxation video.

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Spiegel, director of health services research for Cedars-Sinai and a professor of medicine and public health at UCLA, sees Cedars-Sinai’s Virtual Reality Consult Service as a potential pharmacy for physicians, where they can choose from a variety of VR sessions and prescribe to patients, much like someone might choose a movie from Netflix.

He calls it “dreaming with your eyes open.”

Others experimenting with VR in pain management include the Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas, Stanford Health Care, Harborview Burn Center in Seattle and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. According to Rhew, some projects have focused on using VR to combat substance abuse issues, while others have targeted anxiety in children, Alzheimer’s and motor skills and functionality for stroke patients and those with spinal cord injuries.

“This could be how yoga is adapted in people’s lifestyles,” says Rhew. “I really think of it as a form of treatment that can be adapted to any number of” medical issues.

Such a treatment, however, is not without its drawbacks. Both Rhew and Spiegel say it’s possible to overuse VR, to the point that a patient can become desensitized or develop vertigo or other, different behavioral issues.

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“VR, in essence, hijacks the brain; people lose a certain sense of control in VR,” says Spiegel. “We do need to realize that it is not all fun and games.”

That said, Spiegel has seen instances where VR has helped physicians uncover other, underlying issues with a patient. One woman who started crying when viewing a VR session in which she threw balls at a stuffed bear eventually was diagnosed with PTSD. Another with severe abdominal pain thought to be caused by anorexia or Irritable Bowel Syndrome showed no reaction to pain-relieving VR treatments, prompting doctors to try other treatments. They eventually diagnosed a separate, life-threatening medical issue.

According to Bloomberg, VR was discovered some 50 years ago by accident. Tom Furness, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Washington and Air Force veteran, is credited with first using the technology. He saw the potential for home entertainment, though at that time it cost more than $800 and offered little variety.

One particular group was very interested in the technology, however.

“The dentists loved it because their patients weren’t complaining,” Furness told Bloomberg. “The experience distracted children from their fear of injections, drilling and fillings.”

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With VR sets entering the mainstream as a popular gaming and entertainment device, the price point has gone down considerably. And companies like AppliedVR, DeepStream VR, Magic Leap, Google, HTC and Samsung are finding interest from a healthcare industry dealing with, among other things, high costs for pain management and relief and the burgeoning epidemic of opioid addiction.

“This has potential to treat pain in a way that doesn’t require [medication],” says Spiegel, who gets text messages almost every day from patients or caregivers of patients who are dealing with pain and want to try something that doesn’t come in a pill, liquid or injection. 

Dig Deeper:

USC Launches its Own Virtual Care Clinic

Can a Wearable Help Cancer Patients Manage Their Pain?


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