Marketed primarily as a gaming technology, virtual reality (VR) has permeated various industries like the healthcare sphere where it has become a growing digital trend implemented in hospitals. VR uses computer-generated simulation to create a highly immersive three-dimensional environment that provides individuals an interactive experience where they can manipulate objects and perform certain tasks. VR has the potential to disrupt the way patients manage pain and surgeons practice procedures through therapeutic treatment and surgical training, which are just two of the areas where VR is being tested.
Proposed as an alternative to prescribing potentially addictive pharmaceutical medications, therapeutic VR focuses on reducing and managing pain. A study done by the Cedars-Sinai health system gave patients with various medical conditions Samsung Gear Oculus headsets with access to 21 different immersive experiences like guided meditation to assess the effectiveness of VR for pain management. While quantifiable effects on reducing the use of pharmaceuticals due to the VR treatment remain unknown, the study did find that VR can foster engagement and help distract patients from their physical pain.
VR can also be used in surgical training to simulate different procedures providing surgeons with an effective and affordable way to practice and improve their technique. Northwestern Medicine offers a number of VR simulators to educate and train residents in procedural tasks and operations. Health systems use VR headsets and motion controllers—all a surgeon needs to simulate a procedure—which are portable and relatively inexpensive when compared to other simulators that usually only simulate one type of procedure. While simulative VR procedures are realistic, they cannot replace the real-life operating experience. VR use in surgical training is still in its early stages, creating uncertainty surrounding the impact it has on clinical improvements and constructing a barrier to mainstream implementation. However, some health systems like Cleveland Clinic and NYU Langone are investing in VR and implementing it into their medical education courses.
VR faces many challenges before it can make a largescale impact; a major concern is who will be the payer. Since widespread use of VR in hospitals has yet to occur, health insurance companies are not reimbursing VR intervention. Instead, hospitals and VR companies like AppliedVR are footing the costs. A standard AppliedVR kit costs $3,700 for an annual subscription and includes an Oculus Go headset, remote control, carrying case, content library and interface and training. An economic analysis of VR therapy implementation into hospital systems showed that the cost effectiveness of the technology may not be as high as it is hoped to be. This in turn may affect the adaption of VR use in health systems as it may not align with the digital innovation priorities of hospitals.
Among Corporate Insight’s Health System Monitor coverage group, many health systems like Banner Health, Stanford Medicine and Houston Methodist Hospital are adapting VR to deliver high-quality care in innovative ways. While VR is being used in some health systems, the extent of its impact on pain management and surgical training is still largely unknown as the technology has yet to enter mainstream hospital use. However, the innovative approach to treatment has the potential to shift how patients receive care in the future.