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IT matters: Virtual and augmented reality in medicine

By Alaa Beydoun, Vikash Gupta and Eliot Siegel
From the May 2017 issue of DOTmed HealthCare Business News magazine

Virtual reality and augmented reality are “disruptive” technologies that will soon redefine the ways in which people interact with their environment. Due to recent breakthroughs in optical head mounted displays (OHMDs), the market for VR and AR is expected to exceed $100 billion in 2020 with these technologies finding applications in nearly every industry, including health care. Currently available OHMDs function on a spectrum of VR and AR. VR devices (e.g. Oculus Rift) on the one hand are used to create a simulated environment, supplanting the user’s surroundings with a computer-generated one.

These devices provide great immersive potential, allowing users to experience a myriad of simulated environments such as a beach, amusement park or even the surface of Mars. AR devices (e.g. Microsoft HoloLens) supplement the user’s own environment, mixing the user’s surroundings with computer-generated images. These devices can consequently display holograms that appear to exist in the user’s location such as an office or backyard. The general availability of this disruptive technology provides the potential for many use cases in health care that can positively impact value-based care. The following are several of these applications.

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Simulated education
VR and AR devices are already proving to be important innovations for medical education. Multiple research studies have cited their use as low-cost and accurate simulation environments for developing procedural skills. In laparoscopy, randomized controlled studies have shown VR instruction is effective at reducing procedure time and improving technical performance. Although they may not be ready to replace traditional simulation centers just yet, these devices increase accessibility for procedural training. Similarly, VR and AR are being used as innovative platforms for medical education, providing interactive 3-D models that can teach anatomy and physiology in an intuitive format, to be utilized by trainees and patients.

Patient immersion
Recent technical advances in VR create breathtaking immersive environments and simulated atmospheres. Pioneered by the entertainment and gaming industries, genres include virtual tourism, guided meditation and music immersion. When applied to patient care, these applications have the potential to improve the patient experience such as relaxation therapy for patients too ill to visit therapeutic gardens. This application also has the potential to improve patient satisfaction, an important metric recently factored into Medicare reimbursements. VR and AR devices have also proven to be effective tools for rehabilitation medicine. When combined with patient feedback, prior studies have reported improved outcomes when used for stroke rehabilitation and in PTSD therapy.
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