The world of virtual reality (VR) allows us to quickly immerse ourselves in a setting that is beyond everyday existence, allowing a person to experience a 3-dimensional interactive environment that they would never normally experience. Taken beyond the world of gaming, the use of VR is quickly being adopted in healthcare and is now forming solutions for several practices including diagnostics, training, surgery and treatment, therefore presenting a new and exciting tool for both learning and therapy.
Particularly useful is the application of VR technology in the training of surgical operations and procedures. VR simulators can provide a safe and immersive environment that is almost identical to a real operation. As they say, ‘practice makes perfect’, and this technique provides surgeons with an on-demand surgical experience to hone their skills and gain knowledge in both routine and complex procedures, which they may not experience often in real life. Certainly for healthcare professionals in a non-surgical role, VR offers invaluable exposure and an entirely new learning pathway to gaining experience that wouldn’t be readily available otherwise; and brings their level of understanding much higher than a video or literature resource would provide.
There are also benefits for the patients. VR technology allows an operation to be practised and an outcome viewed, before the patient undergoes surgery. Thus, surgical approaches can be optimised and rehearsed to help overcome any adverse events that may occur during the procedure.
But the use of VR in healthcare doesn’t stop here. As a distraction therapy tool, VR can help in pain management by alleviating the experience of pain; in particular, helping patients with phantom limb pain. Many patients who have undergone an amputation report that there are painful sensations in the lost limb. It is often difficult to treat this kind of pain with the usual treatment methods, as there is a lack of understanding in how and why these painful sensations occur. Using VR, a scenario can be created where the missing limb can still be manipulated, which can help to resolve some of the phycological effects of phantom limb pain and help patients to manage the condition.
This has just touched the surface of the ever-increasing number of ways that VR can be used within the healthcare sector. Other uses include the treatment and management of anxiety and depression, as well as therapy for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. However, this comes at a cost. As well as the technology itself, staff will have to be specially trained in the use of this equipment along with maintenance, cleaning and upkeep. But with this ever advancing digital and technology-rich world it seems that the use of VR will become more commonplace and, in its wake, less expensive, meaning this valuable tool can be used more commonly throughout healthcare and perhaps become a normality.
Jennifer Parker, HealthCare21 Communications, Macclesfield
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