Dr. Evelyn Chan

Virtual reality: Transforming healthcare experiences for a better tomorrow

May 26, 2023
By Dr. Evelyn Chan

As a doctor, one of my most important goals is to improve the quality of care. As we continuously look for ways to improve, one technology stands out: virtual reality (VR). VR has the potential to change the way we diagnose, treat, and care for patients. VR is no longer limited to gaming and entertainment: it is now being used in healthcare to improve clinical training, patient education, and mental health therapies.

Virtual reality for pain and fear management
Drawing from my experience working with children, I conducted the world's largest clinical trials examining VR in children’s procedures in 2017 and began to implement VR in healthcare environments. We developed a method called Procedural Choreography, where we replace real-world negative and painful stimuli with positive and friendly virtual stimuli. So instead of seeing a scary needle, your child sees an inquisitive fish nibbling at their arms.

One example of a problem being solved by VR is trypanophobia, or the fear of needles. Nearly two-thirds of children and one-fourth of adults experience it. If left unaddressed, it can cause lifelong consequences such as anxiety and healthcare avoidance. This can eventually lead to delayed healthcare access and vaccine avoidance. This is where VR comes in – taking away the fear inducing environment and replacing it with something better. The adoption of VR in trypanophobia has been quick and speaks to the power of VR to transform care.

This is just one example of VR's potential in healthcare, the applications of this transformative technology extend far beyond pain management. The combination of technological advances, accessibility, and unmet needs has paved the way for VR to play a significant role in healthcare.

Beyond this, virtual reality (VR) is now being utilized as a treatment for chronic conditions, palliative medical care, and rehabilitation, improving the way that our brain processes various situations, particularly in ‘hard to treat’ populations.

Virtual reality improves the clinical experience for patients with developmental disabilities
Vaccinations and injections are not the only areas where virtual reality (VR) can be utilized in healthcare. For patients with autism, certain medical procedures, such as undergoing an MRI, can often lead to sensory overload and distress. This can result in the patient becoming uncooperative, leading to delays in diagnosis and treatment.

To address this challenge, Procedural Choreography in VR can be employed to reduce sensory overload and induce calmness in patients. By transporting patients to a simulated MRI environment, clinicians can assess a patient’s ability to tolerate the actual procedure. This assessment helps in determining if sedation is necessary during the actual MRI, potentially avoiding the need for sedation altogether.

In addition to reducing pain and anxiety, we showed that VR significantly decreases the need for restraining pediatric patients during medical procedures, by almost 50%. This not only improves the patient experience but also frees up additional staff members who would typically assist with the procedure, allowing them to attend to other cases and tasks.

Other roles of virtual reality in healthcare
Patient education can empower individuals. VR can bridge the gap between medical jargon and patient comprehension, potentially enhancing health literacy and fostering informed decision-making.

VR provides a novel way to treat mental health disorders: anxiety, depression and exposure therapy for phobias have been studied, with promising results.

Rehabilitation often requires repetitive exercises and VR can make rehabilitation more engaging and inspiring, and even accessible in home environments. For example, a stroke survivor can engage in virtual simulations that mimic real-life scenarios, such as cooking or driving, to regain motor skills and boost confidence.

VR could augment clinician training. VR enables healthcare professionals to access realistic virtual environments allowing clinicians to refine their knowledge, skills and improve decision-making abilities.

Why is VR taking off in healthcare
We are in an exciting phase where VR is starting to become mainstream in healthcare and a few factors have been instrumental.

First, the technology has advanced substantially, providing very realistic and immersive experiences. Virtual environments may now reproduce real-world settings with astounding fidelity.

Secondly, the accessibility of VR has greatly improved. Gone are the days when VR systems required expensive and specialized equipment.

Third, there has been a profusion of research investigating the clinical effects of VR in many different healthcare applications, and this has meant that clinicians gain confidence with the technology.

What’s next for virtual reality in healthcare
Virtual reality in healthcare may be currently in its infancy but it is growing rapidly. It is quickly becoming a standard of care, particularly in children. Every day we are witnessing new ways in which technology can help with patient care and treatment.

As of writing, virtual reality has been used for the following and the list will only continue to grow:

- Pain management for patients with needle phobia
- Sensory management for patients with autism
- Exposure therapy for overcoming fears
- Medical education and clinical training
- Treatment for mental health
- Assisting with physical therapy treatments

It won’t be long before this technology will be available to multiple hospitals and clinics in the United States. When that time comes, allow this technology to improve the clinical experience for your patients.

About the author: Dr. Evelyn Chan is a medical doctor specializing in pediatrics and a Rhodes Scholar. She is a pioneer in the field of virtual reality in healthcare, having developed the Smileyscope VR device to alleviate pain and anxiety in pediatric patients. Dr. Chan is passionate about utilizing technology to enhance patient care, medical education, and healthcare innovation.