After his visit to the Vaccine Research Center in Maryland back in July, Bill Gates wrote in his blog that “I put on a virtual reality headset and got a glimpse of the future of medicine.” What he experienced was a VR application that allows researchers to magnify viruses in virtual space so that their weak spots can be identified. Vaccines and drugs can then be engineered to target and attack the vulnerable areas of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Cancer, Ebola, Malaria, and many others. This is a good example of how virtual reality has become an integral part of the drug design process.
In our latest blog, “Virtual Reality is Transforming the Automotive Industry,” we discovered that while virtual reality has been around for a long time, it has only been in recent years that it has evolved from being a presentational tool to an essential operational tool. The same scenario is also unfolding in the healthcare sector as benefits of adopting virtual reality are now too significant to ignore. What is unique in healthcare is number and diversity of virtual reality applications that include drug discovery, surgery preparation, ER training, pain management, Amblyopia treatment, Retinopsy® Look Project, physical rehabilitation, and many others.
VR Surgery Preparation
Back in July, the Washington Post ran a story about conjoined twins (Paislyn and Paisleigh) that touched the hearts of people from all over the world. Their hearts and livers were intertwined and the risks of the surgery were substantial. It was abundantly clear that old school X-rays would not give the surgeons the insight they needed to create the right surgical strategy. To solve this problem, MRI’s and CT scans were transformed into a detailed 3D model of the twins’ hearts. In virtual reality, the doctors were able to collaborate and discover that the precise positioning of the twins during the surgery was critical. They would then again use virtual reality to simulate how to move the twins with the minimal amount of risk. The operation was a success and the use of virtual reality and 3D modelling has set a precedent for how conjoined surgeries will be done in the future.
Emergency Room (ER) Training
The USA Today also recently ran a piece on virtual reality showing an ER simulation at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles that is part of Facebook’s Oculus for Good program. The appeal of such a program is based on several key factors. The first is that medical simulations are typically done using training mannequins where each one can cost in excess of $50,000. Using mannequins also requires a coordinated team and resources in order to create a useful interaction. The price tag of physical trainings routinely presents a big challenge to many children’s hospitals where budgets are commonly tight.
In stark contrast, a VR simulation is far more cost effective than current ER training methods and offers additional advantages such as creating real life, stressful conditions and the ability to show real-time changes in a patient’s condition (for example, skin color). The reality is that VR training is not just cheaper than its alternative; it is also a whole lot better.
The vast majority of us know quite well that when something hurts it is really hard to think about everything else. It is standard practice for hospitals to temporarily counteract a patient’s pain with drugs that often come with side effects and are potentially addictive. The Cedars-Sinai Medical in Los Angeles has found the virtual reality is an excellent alternative to drugs, as it has the ability to distract the mind from the pain that comes with numerous medical procedures and rehabilitation exercises. The Children’s Hospital Los Angeles that was previously mentioned, just published a compelling post called “Virtual Reality Reduces Pain, Anxiety for Kids in Hospitals.” The bottom line is that the mind can have a powerful impact on a person’s health and virtual reality can turn this impact into a positive rather than a negative.
Amblyopia, commonly referred to as “lazy eye,” is a neural disorder that affects the visual system. The symptoms of the affected eye are poor stereovision and inhibited eye-hand coordination. The typical treatment plan involves forcing the patient to use the lazy eye by either patching up the normal eye or by blurring its vision using atropine drops. While these therapies are commonplace for this condition, they are notorious for hindering the development of stereovision, showing effectiveness only in young children, not addressing visuomotor deficits, and saddling patients with the visible stigma associated with wearing an eye patch. There must be a better way.
Leopoly has had the privilege of participating in a consortium, including professors and doctors from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, to develop a VR application that directly targets stereoscopic vision, while invoking visuomotor control processes. This is accomplished by empowering a patient in virtual 3D space to have some fun and simultaneously facilitate stereovision recovery. Virtual reality has already proven that there is a better way.
Retinopsy® Look Project
Leopoly has the also pleasure of working with Dr. Peter Maloca, an internationally renowned doctor of medicine and trained ophthalmologist based in Basel, Switzerland. This cooperation involves the treating individuals who have difficulties reading or watching content on regular computer screens. The Retinopsy® Look VR app places patients in the middle of an attractive cinema where they can see an enlarged version of their desktop screen, a virtual keyboard, and a basic graphical interface (GUI). The size of the keyboard can be adjusted, along with the colors of the keys and even the distance between them. The size, curvature, distance, saturation, and brightness of the virtual screen itself can also be fine tuned for the needs of each user. The controllers themselves are virtually big and bright and a magnifier feature enables areas of interest to be instantly enlarged. In our physical world, a setup offering these unique features would only be possible for a very hefty price tag. Using Leopoly’s platform and a VR headset, a new productive world is unlocked for those who struggle in the real world.
Duke’s DIVE Program
Duke University created a program called DIVE (Duke Immersive Virtual Environment) that is a major contributor to the Walk Again Project (WAP). The focus of the research is on how virtual reality can be used to help paraplegic people to restore partial sensation and control of their muscles in their lower limbs. When the patients first arrived, they were asked to imagine what it is like to walk again. Sadly, there were no signals that could be detected between the brain and these limbs.
The patients were then put into a virtual reality setting where they learned to control an avatar of themselves walking around a soccer field. Once the brain was reawakened to the act of walking, then these same signals were used to activate an exoskeleton. When a patient thought about walking, then the exoskeleton would react accordingly. The exoskeleton exercise done for one hour each day could reignite dormant nerves and reactivate voluntary movement in paralyzed limbs. Patients were even able to regain control over bladder and bowel functions from this VR training.
There is perhaps no other industry that stands to benefit more from virtual reality than healthcare. As Bill Gates described, the creation of vaccines and drugs for deadly diseases can be done far more quickly and cost effectively using VR. Doctors can use VR to better prepare for surgeries and significantly reduce the risk of complications and patient deaths. Hospitals can effectively train ER professionals using VR rather than having to save up for years to buy a plastic mannequin. Instead of overmedicating patients, how about managing their pain by letting them have some fun in virtual reality? Lazy eye suffers can escape the confines of antiquated treatments like eye patches and actually be in control of their own recoveries. People with serious eye conditions can work in virtual space rather than struggle to see in the physical world. Paraplegics can reconnect their brains to dormant nerve endings by seeing themselves walking across a virtual soccer field. The list goes on and on.
Virtual reality is an empowering technology complements existing procedures and even replaces ones that ineffective, costly, and often demoralizing to patients. Healthcare is going virtual and long time skeptics are rapidly becoming outspoken advocates of a technology that has the power to save lives.
As VR hardware is getting easily accessible and affordable, more and more medical players can utilize these great technologies. It is the best time to start your own! Download our VR Training Study to learn more.