Visualizing Health: Healthcare x Virtual Reality

Picture this: a 65-year-old woman decides to consult her doctor after sporadic periods of shortness of breath and chest pain. After a series of tests, her doctor notifies her that she has coronary artery disease, and as her attentiveness drifts in and out, she picks up phrases like “plaque buildup on the inner walls” and “restricted blood flow to the heart.” However, she is in a virtually paralyzed by panic, causing the diagnosis full of esoteric terminology to escape her brain as soon as it enters.

Barriers of understanding between physicians and patients are often difficult to surmount. With virtual reality (VR) software, however, such impediments can be eliminated. In a situation like the one described above, the woman could simply strap on a headset and travel through the plaque-covered arteries, with which she was diagnosed, in 360° vision and internalize the effects on her body as if she were looking at herself during an open heart surgery, thereby making the disease more tangible in her mind.

Projected to be a $3.8 billion market by 2020, virtual reality has the potential to completely disrupt the healthcare industry

This is just one example of countless measures to make healthcare go virtual. Projected to be a $3.8 billion market by 2020, virtual reality has the potential to completely disrupt the healthcare industry as methods of personalized care, medical education and therapy have been given an additional dimension. For one, virtual reality creates a trailblazing way to improve personalized care, as it greatly facilitates communication between patients and physicians. Both parties can better gauge the path of the disease, the benefits of modifying certain behaviors, and the results of taking medicine. Similarly, virtual reality is expected to dramatically improve the treatment processes of anxiety disorders, phobias, addictions, and physical rehabilitation.

Dr. Albert Rizzo, Director of Medical Virtual Reality at University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, is one of the main players in the development of therapy through virtual reality. Specializing in clinical VR since the 1990s, his initiatives have ranged from creating virtual prosthetic arms for amputees to practice with to simulating social interactions for people with autism spectrum disorder. In addition, Rizzo’s development of treatments for PTSD earned him an award in 2010 from the American Psychological Association, and he championed the use of exposure therapy through his program Virtual Iraq. Adapted from the Full Spectrum Warrior video game, Virtual Iraq is integrated in a therapy session, in which the therapist controls the environment, incrementally adding triggers like gunshots, explosions, or even the sight or whirring of a Hummer while monitoring the patient’s heart rate and blood pressure. 

Developing treatments to phobias has made strides in the past decade. A 2010 study tested the effects of virtual reality on arachnophobia, adding tactile augmentation to more accurately simulate touching a spider. By pairing the virtual reality illusion with tactile augmentation, participants who on average could not be within 5.5 feet of a live spider before the treatment were made comfortable approaching within 6 inches of the virtual spider with far less anxiety.

Aside from therapy techniques, virtual reality has also revolutionized education for aspiring doctors, as watching two-dimensional video tutorials or practicing surgeries on cadavers can now be augmented or even replaced by virtual surgeries in which doctors can conduct the surgery with their own novice hands. Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California, for example, has opened a virtual-reality learning center that allows students to interact with a virtual dissection table to rotate the body around, identify organs or systems without having to empty any part of the body out, and look at holograms.

With YouVR, a physician can see what it is like to experience an asthma attack or live with diabetes, and a father or mother can see the world through the eyes of his or her autistic child.
— Dermot Waters, Senior VP of Product at Sharecare

It is clear that there could be countless potential uses of virtual reality technology, but what exactly is the unifying thread that links all healthcare virtual reality products together? Does it really have the potential to disrupt the healthcare industry? Virtual reality may not revolutionize the way in which physicians develop cures or make other medical discoveries, but it will completely transform the way in which the field of medicine is taught and communicated, argues Dermot Waters, Senior Vice President of Product at Sharecare, the digital health and wellness company. Consisting of a series of personalized programs to inform and improve an individual’s health, Sharecare decided to venture into the world of virtual reality in September 2016 by acquiring BioLucid, the leading developer of virtual reality healthcare technology. BioLucid’s main technology is YouVR, a program that, coupled with the HTC Vive, provides scientifically accurate journeys through the body and immersive visualizations of diseases, therapies, and conditions. Not only can one view a simulation, but a patient, physician, or loved one can also insert personalized blood pressure, heart rate, weight and height to traverse the body to internalize the individual patient’s body and condition. According to Waters, “With YouVR, a physician can see what it is like to experience an asthma attack or live with diabetes, and a father or mother can see the world through the eyes of his or her autistic child.”

Sharecare uses this platform of internal visualization along with two other mediums to produce what they call a “patient journey,” which they define as “visual storytelling through the eyes of the diagnosed.” In addition to the YouVR technology, Sharecare creates a series of videos in virtual reality in which an actor depicts living with a certain disease or condition. Then, they produce “share and care stories,” telling the success story of a particular patient who lived with the disease. For example, one particular “patient journey” package they are developing is for diabetes. To internalize how the disease is affecting their bodies, patients can immerse themselves in animated simulations depicting how the pancreas produces a lack of insulin, and how the body responds to this issue. Then, after understanding what exactly is happening in their bodies, they can watch a video in 360-degrees of an actor who, upon learning of his or her condition, takes measures to exercise and eat healthy, providing inspiration for those struggling with the news of their condition and unsure of how to proceed. After, patients are provided a “share and care story” of a lady who lost 100 pounds after eating healthier and exercising regularly with her local community. With all these measures, according to Jeff Arnold, chairman and CEO of Sharecare, the company can “turn data into actionable, visual intelligence, and make a transformative impact on patient engagement, health literacy, medical education and therapy adherence.” With virtual reality, Sharecare hopes to make patients and loved ones feel less overwhelmed and hopeless due to their lack of knowledge of what is happening to the patients’ bodies and what they can do to prevent the disease’s progression or overcome the disease or condition altogether.

Virtual reality will expedite medical education, personalize care, and improve patient comprehension. However, it is important to note that there still exist several barriers to this new, empathetic healthcare system of the future. Studies estimate that only 91 million people have used virtual reality, and that number is projected to jump to 171 million users by 2018. Though the number of virtual reality users is projected to skyrocket, it will still take time for virtual reality to become a commonplace item in hospitals, clinics, other health centers, and especially individual homes. One reason for this is that the cost of virtual reality technology is still fairly high. The HTC Vive, the main platform for medical VR, costs $800, a premium many individuals are not willing to pay. On top of the price, many customers are only attracted to the entertainment capabilities of VR, a fact exaggerated by the current lack of VR material for consumers other than that for entertainment.

Making up more than 10% of the virtual reality market and projected to reach $30 billion by 2020, medical VR is expected to uproot the manner in which conditions are diagnosed, medicine is prescribed, surgical procedures are taught, and therapy is conducted. The experience economy, which commands the present era, will now extend into the areas of health and wellness: personalized care can become more finely tuned. In one scenario, the 65-year-old woman hears her diagnosis of coronary artery disease and tries to mask her confusion on how exactly her condition affects her body, how she should change her lifestyle habits to alleviate her condition, and what action others have taken with the same condition. Through the visual storytelling of her health in virtual reality, she feels more educated, empowered, and hopeful. According to BioLucid co-founder Dale Park, “understanding is really the key to positive outcomes in treatment.” With even a minor increase in visualizing the medical reality on behalf of the patient, loved one, or physician through virtual reality, the implications on treatment results are limitless. ﹥