Not just for gaming: How AR and VR are revolutionizing the patient experience


Laura Drucker

Essential Insights contributor, healthcare writer

Featured experts

Brent Stutz

Senior Vice President, Commercial Technologies, Pharmaceutical Segment

Kristina Redgrave

Innovation Solutions Manager, Fuse by Cardinal Health

From 3D printing to mobile connectivity, technological innovations of all types are changing the way patients are diagnosed and cared for in clinical settings. As previously noted in "Five ways healthcare innovation will move forward in 2017," augmented and virtual reality hold some of the most promising potential for innovation within healthcare.

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) both provide patients with enveloping experiences that can support clinical care, though they do so in different ways. AR transmits a live feed over a real-world environment (think Pokémon Go). Computer-generated sensory input can superimpose graphics, sounds, and even smells to alter the experience. VR is even more immersive, transporting patients to three-dimensional worlds that differ from their current reality (think virtual tours). The market for this technology is growing—a recent report from Goldman Sachs values the estimated market for AR/VR in healthcare at $5.1 billion by 2025.

"Our visits to the doctor's office or hospital could be dramatically different in five to 10 years as a result of the use of AR and VR," said Brent Stutz, senior vice president of commercial technologies at Cardinal Health and head of Fuse, the company's innovation center.

To understand how, one need only look at the progress being afforded by AR/VR in a variety of patient experiences.


Benefits to mental health patients

One area where AR and VR are already showing immense promise is in the treatment of a range of mental disorders. By allowing patients to interact and experiment with new or stressful environments, both AR and VR act as powerful facilitators of personal change, enabling the disruption of complex thoughts and feelings. This has proven beneficial in the treatment of mood disorders, paranoia, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a study of 30 patients suffering from severe paranoid delusions, researchers at Oxford University combined VR with traditional psychological therapies to reduce paranoia-based fear. The patients were placed in simulated situations that mirrored typical anxiety-inducing scenes, such as being surrounded by people in an elevator or on a train. Some patients were told to lower their defenses entirely and approach the people around them. Other were permitted to use their normal defenses. At the end of the testing day, 50 percent of those in the first group reported a marked reduction in their severe paranoia, as did around 20 percent of the second group. While the study looked at a small sample, it is indicative of the work that can be done.

Mental health professionals have been using immersive experiences for years to combat mental disorders, but new advances within AR and VR can enhance traditional therapies by allowing patients to confront difficult situations in safe environments.

Potential for pain relief

AR/VR also offer a wide range of possibilities for the management of physical ailments.

“AR/VR can help with stress relief and pain reduction, transporting a patient to a remote oasis or allowing a patient to play a game while hospitalized or undergoing treatments," said Fuse Innovation Solutions Manager Kristina Redgrave. “Studies have shown that using VR for hospitalized patients is more effective than past tactics to help distract patients from their pain."

Learn more about Pain RelieVR and other content offerings from AppliedVR

At Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, 100 patients suffering from cardiac, neurological, gastrointestinal, and post-surgical pain participated in an experiment to examine the efficacy of VR in the reduction of pain levels. Half of the patients were shown a nature video with calming music. The other half wore VR goggles and watched an animated game called Pain RelieVR. After 15 minutes, there was a 13 percent drop in pain scores among patients who watched the nature video, and a 24 percent drop among those who used the VR goggles.

Part of the reason for reduced pain is that immersive technology offers a controlled distraction, but researchers are finding AR can even reactivate areas of the brain. In a clinical trial at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, researchers found the use of AR relieved chronic intractable phantom limb pain in amputees. Using electrical signals and artificial intelligence, patients were able to see themselves on a screen with a virtual appendage replacing their missing limb. They could control the missing limb on the screen, utilizing the parts of their brain that were used to control the limb before its removal. After 12 sessions, patients reported a 50 percent decrease in pain intensity and frequency, as well as improved sleep, and for some, a reduced reliance on analgesic medications.

Improving clinical experiences

Beyond direct therapeutic abilities, AR/VR also offer opportunities for helping patients understand their treatment plans. “AR/VR applications can walk a patient through the human anatomy, the health issue they are facing, and the details of their upcoming procedure," Redgrave noted.

Across AR and VR applications, devices are emerging that can educate patients and facilitate better communication among their care teams. Preparing for a surgery at a large facility can be a daunting task for patients, but AR/VR is being used today to guide them through the medical facility where their upcoming procedure will be performed beforehand, lessening their anxiety.

While in its early days, all signs point to AR/VR as one of the true disruptors for revolutionizing the patient experience.