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The Virtual Reality of Healthcare, A Shiny New Future

In my last article, I mentioned that Augmented Reality has a potential future in the medical industry. Well, its counterpart Virtual Reality (VR) is no different.

Image by S. Hermann / F. Richter from Pixabay

If you’re confused about the difference between the two, then you might want to check out this, but the brief version is that while augmented reality places something virtual into the real world (like a fridge, a chair, a lipstick color or even a road sign) with the use of a screen, virtual reality requires a full headset, and completely immerses you into the virtual world.


The healthcare industry is the number one industry in terms of making breakthroughs with virtual reality. From providing general quality-of-life improvements to support health and safety, to training for potentially life-changing surgeries, VR has done it all. And that’s exactly what we’re going to consider today. Because that surgery that someone you knew had done a while ago? Well that doctor may have been trained using Virtual Reality, and you would never know. Is this a shiny new reality?


To keep a nice flow, we’re going to be considering each issue in 3 different sections: what it is, why VR is used, and the proof of it’s improvement to the topic.


Surgery

Cadaveric Temporal Bone Dissection (that is, the practice of dissecting the temporal bones; which are two major bones in the sides and base of the skull) is notoriously difficult to train people in, given that those who practice it must have a high level of confidence. Furthermore, there are limited resources available for actual training; bones must be discarded after drilling, and illnesses can be transmitted easily through diseased tissues. To conquer this issue, some make realistic models to practice on, but most choose to use Virtual Reality.


The first commercially available system for this is the VOXEL-MAN Tempo Surgery Simulator. The way it works is that high-resolution, computed images of the temporal bone will be used to create a 3D recreation, and a stylus will serve as a virtual drill, paired with a foot drill to activate it. Users are able to alter surgical orientation, drill size, type, and rotation speed. In fact, the Simulator Trial that was conducted on this technology actually showed that some surgical skills experienced significant improvement using it. The Moediseus Surgical Simulator showed similar results, with a higher procedural score.


But that’s not all. Virtual Reality has also been used in Endoscopic Sinus Surgery (nose surgery). If you’re squeamish, you might want to skip this sentence, but generally, the surgery consists of inserting an endoscope into the nasal cavity, with the other hand manipulating the tool to clear any diseased mucosa. Now endoscopic surgery is still relatively new, and the training workshops are a full day of lectures and practice.


Lapsim virtual reality Simulator can be used in these workshops, or the Endoscopic Sinus Surgical Simulator (ES3) which was developed by Lockheed Martin Inc. In fact, the VOXEL-MAN that we mentioned earlier was developed into the VOXEL-MAN Sinus Surgery Simulator. And if you’re wondering just how much this has improved the skills needed for the surgery, then look no further than Fried et al, who evaluated the confidence in the surgery itself and manipulation of the tools. Not only was there a difference in the time needed to complete the surgery, but Solyar et al showed that the ES3 users had a higher anatomical identification structure.


Balance Training

So we know that it can be used for surgery, but did you know it can also be used for balance training the elderly? According to the Bureau of Health Promotion, the Department of Health held that falling is one of the main causes of illness and death among the elderly, at 51%. Furthermore, this is significantly more true for those over the age of 65. Furthermore, a study of 50 over 65’s by Daubney et al showed that those who fell had worse balance.


But where does VR come into this, you may ask? Surely virtual reality would make the situation worse - it can disorientating even for those below 20 years old, with the popular VR gaming headsets the Occulus Rift and Occulus Quest (which were acquired by Facebook in 2014) coming with a 30-minute warning to take a 10-minute break. Well surprisingly, you’re actually incorrect.


One study used a virtual reality training program and tested a 67-year-old man (called Mr. A) to do a variety of activities including using his hand or foot to touch random balls. The training was set up over a six-week session, with each exercise having 3 games and two minute intervals between them.


Over the six-week period, it can be noticed that the time taken to complete the exercises significantly reduced, with the hand touching the ball going from 35 seconds at week one to 29 seconds in the final week. Furthermore, the foot-touching the ball exercise decreased from 37 seconds in the first week to 32 seconds in the final. A clinical assessment test was also given to another elderly person, who showed similar results. The reason why this is so exciting is because simply with its form (virtual reality) this is an easy method of improving health and safety in a fun way.


Virtual reality was probably first introduced to many people in the world of gaming, and it remains one of the largest industries to use the technology. The elderly typically have a variety of concerns, with trips to the doctors for checkups being regular. Using virtual reality to assist their balance is a stress-free way of improving not only their health (it is exercise, after all) but their safety too. In fact, there’s even an argument that it could bring them closer to their loved ones. Just last year, I was sitting in the living room watching my 80-year-old grandma play on the Playstation Virtual Reality.


Having considered the above 3 examples of VR in the healthcare industry, what's your opinion? Do you think that Virtual Reality is just a shiny new toy foran industry that isn't ready for it, or do you think the truth is much, much brighter than that? Personally, I'm surprised that it's even used in the industry; I have little experience with Virtual Reality outside of the Entertainment Industry, so learning about it's impact on healthcare is astounding to me.

 
  • Alcanja, D. (n.d.) Virtual Reality Applications: 10 Industries Using Virtual Reality in 2022. TrioBlog. Available at: https://www.trio.dev/blog/virtual-reality-applications (Accessed: November 11, 2022)

  • Naik, S.M., Naik, M.S. and Bains, N.K. (2014) Cadaveric temporal bone dissection: Is it obsolete today?, International archives of otorhinolaryngology. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4296941/ (Accessed: November 3, 2022).

  • Piromchai, P. (2014) Virtual reality surgical training in ear, nose and throat surgery, International Journal of Clinical Medicine. Available at: https://www.scirp.org/pdf/IJCM_2014051314134566.pdf (Accessed: November 3, 2022).

  • Zhang, Z., Xu, M., Huang, J. (2018) Proposals to Promote the Development of Virtual Reality in China 0 Based on Patent Econometric Analysis. Engineering, Vol.10 No.5. Available at: https://www.scirp.org/journal/paperinformation.aspx?paperid=84818 (Accessed: November 3, 2022)

  • Oculus (n.d.) Health and Safety Warning. Available at: https://securecdn.oculus.com/sr/oculusquest-warning-english (Accessed: November 11, 2022)

  • Hsieh, W.M., Chen, C.C., Wang, S.C, Chen, Y.L et al. (2013) Combination of the Kinect with Virtual Reality Balance Training for the Elderly. Engineering. Available at: https://www.scirp.org/pdf/ENG_2013103014075937.pdf (Accessed: November 11, 2022)

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