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Just What the Doctor Ordered: VR for Health & Wellness

Clare Bond

Director, Experience Design, EPAM US
  • Life Sciences & Healthcare

Until recently, virtual reality (VR) was viewed as an “edge technology.” Unless you were a gamer or a techie, it is unlikely that you thought much about it. Most people aren’t aware that there has been over 30 years of research into using VR in medicine, with more than 3,000 published research studies. Goldman Sachs predicts the market for VR in the health industry will hit $5.1 billion in sales by 2025, with 3.4 million active users. The majority of these sales will be in software for specialized medical use, not hardware devices. Suffice to say, this is a massive and growing market.

Our experience design team at EPAM’s San Francisco office has been exploring how to use VR to reduce stress and increase resiliency; other applications distract patients from pain, provide a controlled environment for exposure therapy, and shift inaccurate body image and post-injury rehabilitation. VR’s effectiveness for health lies in its ability to generate presence – people experience it as if it were real. Being fully embodied in a VR experience allows the opportunity to shift perception. This altered reality stimulates neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the nervous system to grow new neural pathways and connections resulting from learning or to replace those damaged by injury. Being immersed in VR literally changes the brain, and the applications of this for health are remarkable.

The following are just a few examples of how this technology can be applied to the physical and mental wellbeing of patients:

Acute Pain Relief: VR is being used for acute pain relief resulting from disease, chronic pain, medical procedures and injury. The CHARIOT Program, an initiative of the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, is using VR as part of its pain management program and it is remarkably effective. A 10-year-old boy named Blaine, for example, went from requiring total anesthesia for daily dressing changes, to needing no medication of any kind. Studies have shown that VR decreases the average perception of pain in treatment of severe burns by 38 percent. Given the state of the opioid crisis, the implications of using VR for pain relief are significant and much needed.

PTSD Treatment: Skip Rizzo, Director for Medical Virtual Reality at USC’s Center for Creative Technologies, has pioneered the use of VR for treating PTSD, rehabilitation and resilience. One of his projects, Bravemind VR Exposure, provides a system used for exposure therapy, progressively allowing patients to experience a managed environment with therapist support that helps them heal from trauma. VR’s ability to generate presence is what makes it so effective for PTSD. Research has shown that a combination of VR and exposure-based therapy is extremely effective with as much as 70% remission in some studies. VR can be used to change lives and reduce suffering for individuals and their loved ones.

Eating Disorders: Giuseppe Riva’s research at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart’s Applied Technology for Neuro-Psychology Laboratory in Milan is producing significant outcomes using VR for eating disorders to address inaccurate body image in conditions like anorexia and obesity. Based on the Allocentric Lock Hypothesis – which holds that individuals with body dysmorphia are unable to update their body image to match reality – his work in VR shifts this fixed perception, resulting in outcomes around body image and attitudes towards eating that are shown to be substantially more effective than traditional therapy. Studies repeatedly show how VR is able to shift body image resulting in lasting change for individuals, improving their health and their lives.

Physical Rehabilitation: Duke University’s Walk Again Project (WAP) successfully uses VR to help patients with spinal cord injuries regain muscle control and sensation. In most cases, the spinal cord is not totally severed, potentially offering the opportunity to regain some function, such as bladder control. In a VR environment, patients walk their avatars around a soccer field while wearing a sleeve that provides tactile feedback. Over time, this generates new neural connections, subsequently using them to control an exoskeleton which activates when they think about walking in the real world. One of the most remarkable results is a woman who had been unable to walk for 13 years. In 13 months, she went from total paralysis to being able to move her legs with the support of a harness. This VR-produced change dramatically decreases dependency on care, while improving quality of life.

VR for Wellness at EPAM: Motif is a collaborative research project between EPAM’s San Francisco design studio, EPAM Garage and our Saint Petersburg AR/VR development team. It uses a combination of a VR experience and EEG to train users for flow. Flow is a state of “being in the zone,” and is associated with better focus, higher productivity and greater resilience to stress. In Motif, users complete a mandala-style puzzle using abstract puzzle pieces. Data from a Muse EEG headset is integrated to create a brain computer interface: when the users enter a flow state, the system rewards them interactively by adding extra pieces to the puzzle, allowing them to complete it faster. While Muse is currently a proof of concept, we are excited to see where we can take this project next.

As these examples show, the health applications for VR are clinically supported and proven to be effective. Far from merely being a niche product for gamers, the use of VR for health is an exciting field that continues to gain momentum, and one that has potential to significantly change people’s lives for the better.

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