Virtual reality may help cure healthcare
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Virtual reality may help cure healthcare

Virtual reality may help cure healthcare

Virtual reality therapy has been used to reduce pain and anxiety without costly or potentially addictive medications


To the uninitiated, virtual reality (VR) may summon visions of dystopian digital galaxies or zombie-slaying epics. Increasingly, though, VR is showing promise in real-world industries. In particular: It may soon revolutionise the health-care business.

Although still a small market, health-focused VR has shown potential in treating a range of conditions, from phobias to chronic pain. It may some day transform medical education. By one estimate, the market will reach $9.5bn by 2028, up from $1.8bn in 2021. But like all such technology, virtual reality will require some sensible rules and guardrails to flourish.

Already, VR is helping treat patients. One of the most successful areas has been post-traumatic stress disorder.

Under the guidance of a therapist, soldiers who’ve returned from war can don a headset and immerse themselves in realistic computer-generated scenes to confront the sources of their trauma.

Virtual reality therapy has also been used to reduce pain and anxiety without costly or potentially addictive medications. Researchers think that those suffering from a range of other ailments — including cerebral palsy, depression, dementia and even loneliness — may soon benefit.

Medical professionals stand to gain as well. With VR, surgeons can find more accurate, less invasive pathways to remove tumors.

Doctors can give patients a preview of their procedures or tour their problematic body parts, interactions that may build trust and decrease anxiety. Therapists can design more precise and effective rehabilitation programs. As practitioners get more comfortable with the technology, its uses will likely multiply.

Perhaps the most far-reaching effects of VR will be on training. When hospital access was limited during the pandemic, virtual reality became a critical educational tool.

In VR, nursing students can not only practice difficult procedures repeatedly — impossible with real humans or cadavers — they can also prepare for low-frequency, high-risk scenarios they wouldn’t otherwise encounter. Early results have been impressive: In one study, surgeons trained with VR were six times less likely to make errors than those with traditional training.

Officials can take a few additional steps to address potential problems and ensure the technology thrives.

One concern is costs. With VR headsets ranging from $300 to more than $1,000, getting payers on board will be key to broader adoption.

In March, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services established a reimbursement code for a VR-based therapy and agreed to cover treatment. That’s a start, but the government should recognise VR’s potential to improve care and reduce costs and create a broader category for coverage. Commercial insurers, for their part, have expressed interest in VR, yet they’ve shared little publicly about how they’ll choose to pay. These deliberations should be accelerated and made transparent.

A second step should be establishing privacy protections. The technology that helps transport users into dazzling virtual worlds also handles troves of their data. Such information is vital for providers — for example, body positioning can help physical therapists monitor their patients’ progress — but may not be protected by law until it’s uploaded into patients’ electronic records. Lawmakers should work with the industry to ensure such data can be safeguarded without compromising innovation.

Finally, state auditors and regulators need to determine how to recognise virtual training for credit toward medical and nursing degrees.

One study found that up to 50 per cent of nursing students’ clinical training can be achieved with high-quality simulation. Yet recognition of virtual hours varies widely by state. With more research, a consensus should emerge on prudent guidelines for various degree levels.

It’s not often that a tool as promising as virtual reality comes around. The sooner the health-care profession can embrace it, the better.

Read: Is virtual reality the new business opportunity?

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