Virtual reality

With all the joys the technological progress brings, the question sporadically arising is, “What is the point if so many people still don’t live to see their life autumn?”; What kind of joy from a new contraption can a person with cancer feel? Isn’t money spent on tech enhancements spent in vain? Yet, it’s not that bad with those popular high-tech ‘useless toys’ as you might think — even when it goes about such seemingly frolic device as VR goggles.

Reality headsets are still mostly associated with games and movies. Though, scientists are getting more and more interested in it — and not only in their free time. For the last years, it has proven ability to save problems far from being a plaything. For example, in healthcare, with its most thorny concerns. The graph below is taken from Our World in Data report on reasons for non-natural deaths worldwide. Does VR have potential to struggle with them?

Reasons of death

Cardiovascular diseases

Heart and blood vessel illnesses are number one among premature death reasons. The biggest difficulty with heart treatment is that it is a very complex organ. It is extremely hard to understand what is going on inside of it. At the same time, it demands a fast response and considered and precise decisions. What can virtual reality propose here?

Heart model

First of all, modeling. Ask any surgeon — and the will tell you how hard it is to picture in one’s mind and represent what the human heart looks like three-dimensionally. And it’s never static — at least, statics is not what the surgeon expects to see during the operation in case of a heart. Then, how to avoid a fatal mistake?

VR goggles come in handy. In a program called Stanford Virtual Heart, for example, you can explore and manipulate a lifelike human heart from inside through a reality headset. The program is put in action at Stanford University School of Medicine with support from VR Oculus. It helps the trainee to spot defects and understand what patients experience. But it doesn’t just give a chance for thorough observations. It saves a lot of money since it costs much less than plastic models used before. They plan to develop up to thirty heart defect models for VR experience.

Heart VR

Another area where VR has already proved its usefulness in treating cardiovascular diseases is rehabilitation after a stroke. Often, those who have suffered a stroke struggle with the renewal of motor activity. MindMaze VR therapy software aids recovery of such patients by teaching them to control digital avatars of their bodies. Visualization of the movements helps surviving nerves recover from dormant state. Scientists at a Duke University successfully use this technique even with paralyzed patients teaching them to play football with their avatars. The process literally re-teaches the brain to control motor activity and helps patients to regain strength and mobility.

Cancer

Though cancer doesn’t take the first place among mortality agents, it does arise the biggest emotional response in society because of the sufferings ill people go through. Physical pain is the hardest thing patients, relatives and doctors have to face when dealing with this disease. Current treatment of severe pain mainly involves opioids, but their anesthetic effect decreases with time. The way out which VR proposes in this situation is based on its distraction effect. The immersion into a virtual world deluges the brain with sensory inputs. Thus it deflates brain’s capacity to process pain and be conscious of it. It has been proven that VR reduces the time of thinking about pain by 48 %, compared with 10 % by opioids.

VR therapy is an effective way to reduce anxiety and distress with cancer patients, especially those of young age. Several VR programs, ranging from underwater adventures to trips around Iceland, have been developed by companies like KindVR and Oncomfort who see their mission in helping sufferers through VR.

VR in cancer treatment

Another VR breakthrough in cancer treatment lies in exchanging experience in complex operative cases. 2016 met a 13.000 participant streaming of a medical procedure broadcasted in live 360° video. The British surgeon Shafi Ahmed used VR to share his knowledge and practical skills with students and colleagues all over the world. The app he used is the work of Medical Realities, a company that uses VR, 3D, and 360-degree videos for medical training.

Respiratory diseases

Respiratory diseases are an immense worldwide health strain. It is estimated that more than 6 mln people worldwide suffer from asthma, COPD, tuberculosis, and pulmonary hypertension. Lung illnesses are the most common reason for mortality among children under 5. Very often the reason for adverse consequences is the misuse of inhalers and lack of knowing how to behave in case of attack. Virtual reality apps help people struggling with asthma starting from age 5 to manage their symptoms. They teach sufferers to use inhalers correctly and breath properly, which may save lives.

VR for asthma

The use of VR in treating respiratory diseases is still at the initial stage, though, some steps are already taken in this direction. There are attempts to combine ventilator management protocol with VR. It should reduce psychological and physiological complications of mechanical ventilation for people with respiratory problems.

Diabetes

Here, VR is also mostly used for education purpose now, both for doctors and for patients. Diabetes Voyager, for example, uses Oculus VR and Microsoft Kinect to take users to the heart, brain and vascular system of a diabetes sufferer. The trainee goes through challenges related to the disease, like achieving normal HbA1c levels, avoiding hypoglycemia and losing weight. VRDiabeti Game is another piece of software developed for diabetic children 5-12 years old for teaching a daily medical maintenance routine together with healthy eating and play habits.

Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s is the main type of dementia. It affects millions of people around the world, and its population is constantly growing. With this being taken into account, you can’t just brush the problem off by labeling it an ordinary aging disorder. For scientists, it is a natural call for innovation and improvement. The main challenge for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia is a disconnection, which reveals itself in various areas: speech, environment, memory. The use of VR in this sphere is based on the principle of neuroplasticity. That is the ability of the brain to reassemble new synapses while interacting with enriched environments.

Scientists, together with programmers, develop software which either recreates the elderlies’ previous experiences or stimulates positive emotions via scenarios like traveling to exotic places or observing wildlife. VR offers dementia sufferers the chance to feel alive and maintain self-esteem.

VR and Alzheimer's

But alleviating lives of people with Alzheimer’s isn’t the only VR application when dealing with this disorder. VR technology helps to detect a risk of Alzheimer’s yet at the age of 18, based on how people move through a virtual maze. This gives scientists a better understanding of the disease reasons and how they can be prevented or modified.

Future prospects

We have described just a few cases of the use of VR in healthcare. But the potential of this technology is unembraceable. Medical VR applications are becoming more and more diverse and can be tailored to the needs of private practitioners and state hospitals. Apart from education, surgery simulation, treatment of psychological disorders, and pain distraction, they can also be used in diagnostics and help to minimize personnel efforts when dealing with labor-intensive activities.

Medical education with VR

In Stfalcon.com, we believe that there is a big future for virtual reality in medicine, and take part in medical VR development. Thus, one of our recent projects was devoted to the creation of the VR app aimed at diagnostics of a specific and complex eye disease. The solution proposed by our developers helps to reduce the number of the staff involved in diagnostics twice — and get more precise data about the nature of disease.

We aim at deepening our expertise in this sphere in the future and invite you for cooperation. Contact us at info@stfalcon.com!

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