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Innovation to Address Pain Management: How AR/VR Can Help

In the News:

Healthcare Business & Technology – by Patrick Allen

Opioids have been the focus of the media for a while now, and the press has been almost all negative. But patients need help in relieving their pain. In this guest post, Patrick Allen, BSN, MBA, principal at an integrated business, technology and experience consulting practice, will offer an alternative to opioid prescriptions in the form of augmented and virtual reality.


While the overall opioid prescribing rate in the U.S. has been declining since 2012, the amount of opioids in morphine milligram equivalents (MME) prescribed per person is still around three times higher than it was in 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The use of opioids and other controlled medications has risen dramatically due to several demographic and business factors, including high expectations for pain relief from cancer and complex surgeries, greater survival of traumatic injuries and the resulting ailments from an aging population. Patient satisfaction has also played a role in high usage as pain control is a major component of the HCAHPS (Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems) survey – and better HCAHPS results lead to better reimbursement.

As the opioid epidemic has been increasingly reported in the media, there’s a fast-growing movement to reduce the use of opioid medications for pain, now that the potential for dependence and other adverse side effects is so well-known. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates that 130 fatalities occur daily due to opioid use. Homeopathic treatments, such as chiropractic, physical and occupational therapy, and other non-pharmaceutical options, are becoming increasingly popular. As a result, the scientific and business communities are seeing the need and opportunity to innovate by developing nonpharmacologic and noninvasive therapies in this space.

Effective alternative

What was once considered a toy used primarily for entertainment, augmented and virtual reality (AR & VR), combined with mindfulness training and stress-reduction, is becoming an effective alternative for patients with chronic or difficult-to-treat pain. AR/VR offers an immersive experience to take a patient’s mind off pain while releasing endorphins, which provide longer-term relief. The fact that there are few, if any, side effects to AR/VR therapy is a bonus.

Several universities on the west coast, including the University of Washington, Stanford and University of Southern California (USC), have already established research dedicated to the use of AR/VR. Early results are promising – some, admittedly smaller, studies have shown that AR/VR is more effective than opioids for most types of pain. One small study, for example, showed that VR reduced participants’ pain by 60% to 75% from their baseline level during a VR session and by 30% to 50% afterward. To put this into context, the best pain reduction that morphine manages is approximately 30% immediately afterward.

Promising results, more needed

While these early results are indeed promising, using AR/VR for pain management likely won’t become more widespread until further evidence is published. To accomplish this, cooperation between academia and business will be required, including:

  • Funding for research – existing studies have been relatively small due to a variety of factors. For a large study, funding is needed for staff and equipment (specifically the AR/VR goggles).
  • Updated and thoughtfully-designed AR/VR applications – current applications are focused on relaxation and mindfulness. To be truly effective, a VR/AR application that helps the patient move into the flow state to stimulate endorphins and provide longer-term pain relief is necessary.
  • Payor coverage – Even if AR/VR therapy is proven effective, its use will be limited if payors don’t cover its use. Conversations with payors should start as soon as possible, so patients can leverage this new therapy.
  • An effective business model – To encourage its application and adoption of goggles (or other tools’ designs), a rational and attractive business model should be evident. Given the urgent need for change, perhaps the FDA and other government agencies will make patent protection available.

Innovation to address the opioid epidemic is critical if we want to truly make an impact, save lives and lower economic costs associated with the abuse of these drugs. AR/VR is one way that clinical and technological industries are trying to innovate, but it could take other forms, such as research on more effective non-pharmaceutical treatments, the neuroscience of pain or a disrupting business model. What we can’t do is nothing. How will you and your organization respond?

Patrick Allen, BSN, MBA is principal, healthcare business consulting at EPAM Continuum, the integrated business, technology and experience consulting practice of EPAM Systems Inc

The original article can be found here.