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Preparation, pain and promise: mixing up reality in healthcare

By Liz Mercer, Senior Account Manager


A room is full of surgeons, doctors and nurses, clustered around a patient. The mood is tense. They’ve been performing a particularly delicate procedure on the patient’s heart and things are going badly wrong.

While the tension in the air is real, this time it isn’t a matter of life and death. It’s all part of a highly immersive virtual simulation, the likes of which are rapidly changing the way medical professionals are trained around the world.

This was just one of the demos on show last month at VR World – the biggest mixed reality (VR and AR) show in the UK – which showcased exactly how much potential there is for this technology.

Mixed reality is an area that’s gathered masses of attention over the past few years (Oculus Rift fan over here!!), but there’s still an assumption that it’s only really relevant for gaming and entertainment. Well, it’s not. As VR World proved, healthcare organisations, pharmaceutical brands, medics and academics are increasingly showing an interest and it won’t be long before it’s a standard tool in the industry.

To keep you ahead of the curve, here are three hot tips for mixed reality to watch out for in 2017:

  1. VR and AR as a tool for training is one important area that’s already being thoroughly explored by the likes of Microsoft HoloLens,Google Earth VRModboxTilt Brush, as it’s clear that students of all ages learn better when there’s more interaction, and remember more from experiences of “active” rather than “passive” learning. In the UK, The Royal College of Surgeons is already working with Microsoft HoloLens and teaming up with education group, Pearson, to harness immersive technologies for training students in surgical procedures. Shafi Ahmed, council member of the Royal College of Surgeons, has said that this technology is the future when it comes to education. “[In the next five years] I think most people will be taught with this AR, VR, mixed reality,” he said. “Learning will change immeasurably.”
  2. Another interesting area being explored is pain relief. We know that pain perception has a strong psychological component; pain actually requires our attention. So if you can distract a patient with a virtual game or scenery, it should be possible to limit it… cool idea, right? SnowWorld, developed at the University of Washington HITLab, was the first immersive virtual world designed for reducing pain in burn patients and results have been positive so far. The Pediatric Pain Management Clinic at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, is also using VR with kids. They use a few different games to help distract them from painful and stressful procedures like getting their blood drawn. This kind of “engaged distraction” could also work for people with chronic pain – and unlike opiates, there’s no risk of addiction or side-effects!
  3. Mental health was also an important topic at the show. We know that one in four people will experience mental health issues at some point in their life and we think that mixed reality could well be one part of the answer. Why? Well, the answer lies in VR’s ability to create powerful simulations of real scenarios. Suddenly there’s no need for a therapist to accompany a client on a trip to a crowded shopping centre, for example, or up a tall building, and because VR is not real that reticence to try something different tends to disappear. We’ll do things in VR that we’d be might be scared to try in normal life, and the good news is that it seems we can easily transfer the lessons learnt to the real world. Though it’s fair to say that most studies for VR in mental health have focused on anxiety disorders, phobias, and PTSD so far, the results have been encouraging and there’s interesting work being done this year on mixed reality as a treatment for depression.

Ultimately, when it comes to our health in the near future, it will be the convergence of technological and traditional solutions that will offer the most impact and illicit the greatest behavioural change. And when it comes to mixed reality, the story so far is one of limitless potential. So watch this space, go and buy a headset or check out a demo. The future is virtually around the corner…

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