Defining Virtual Reality is surprisingly easy: it’s not-quite-real reality. Even if you want to get more technical, it’s still pretty simple: VR is the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment.
VR is increasingly being used in healthcare to improve outcomes. Here are some of its most intriguing applications:
Robots may not come immediately to mind when you envision VR, but robotic surgery is a technique that belongs to the VR space. One example is Transoral Robotic Surgery (TORS); it is used to remove tumors of the mouth and throat. TORS is performed through the patient’s open mouth; an endoscope (a flexible tube with a lighted camera) provides a 3-D, high resolution image of the back of the mouth and throat. The surgeon, who is sitting at the head of the patient, operates the system’s “arms”—wristed instruments that can bend and rotate with much greater dexterity than the human wrist—and guides a laser to remove the tumor.
Treatment of Phantom Limb Pain
Phantom limb pain (PLP), a syndrome experienced by many amputees, occurs because the brain cannot “let go” of the missing limb. People suffering from PLP often feel as if they are clenching muscles, fingers, or toes that no longer exist, which can cause severe pain. An article in the industry journal Frontiers in Neuroscience detailed a study in which doctors constructed a virtual environment for a PLP sufferer. The doctors connected sensors to the stump of the patient’s missing arm, which allowed him to control the virtual arm through brain impulses. Because he was able to virtually maneuver his missing arm, his brain was able to relax the muscles that no longer existed in the real world, alleviating his pain. Studies in this area are ongoing.
A virtual reality platform developed by Osso VR provides surgeons-in-training with realistic, hands-on simulations to better prepare them for careers in the operating room. Medical students put on a VR headset that displays a virtual operating room, and hold two controllers that track with real-life hand movements and mimic the feeling of performing surgical procedures. Osso VR recently won the U.S. Department of Education’s EdSim Challenge, a competition to design the next-generation of simulations to strengthen career and technical education.
As surgeons are continually learning new techniques, Osso VR’s platform has training and educational benefits that persist far beyond medical school. Justin Barad, co-founder and CEO of Osso VR, is also an orthopedic surgeon and former game developer. He says:
"What we’re expected to do when we’re learning a new surgical technique is fly out to a remote cadaver course. We get a chance to practice in a hands-on way on a cadaver, and we only get to do that once.”
Barad likens the current practice to studying for a test, and then taking the test six months later, with no brush-ups in-between. And since the “test” in his analogy is operating on a live person, the value of Osso VR’s platform is readily apparent.
By all accounts, VR in healthcare is in its infancy and has many more potential applications than are being used today. As those applications are identified, tested, and implemented, VR will expand its impact on our overall health and quality of life. And, as with any healthcare innovation, it holds the hope of positive outcomes that we can barely envision today.