January 21, 2018

Hospital patients suffering from a variety of issues including chronic pain, anxiety, PTSD and memory loss are finding technological treatments such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are working effectively towards improving their symptoms as well as counteracting the tedium and stress of long hospital stays. 

Here are a few examples of how both Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are being used in the healthcare setting.

Virtual Reality and Pain Distraction

Numerous studies have been successful in showing that virtual reality technology can have significant positive impacts on patients suffering chronic pain and it is one of the more common ways the technology is used in the hospitals today. Immersing the patient in the virtual reality world, whether it be via an interactive game or transporting them to a calming beach setting, acts to distract the patient from the pain they are experiencing, providing relief. This non-invasive therapy provides a much-needed alternative/supplementary treatment to strong painkillers which have unpleasant side-effectives for many patients including nausea and stomach upsets, constipation and fatigue, and with continued use pose the serious threat of addiction.

Paediatrics Care and VR Games

For children, the hospital environment can be particularly frightening and stressful. VR is being employed increasingly by doctors in paediatric settings, again helping to distract children from their pain or during potentially distressing situations such as getting a cast or stitches removed. Doctors have found VR technology is more successful than other distraction techniques previously employed, and when children are calm and entertained it makes their job easier and safer to do. It can also provide entertainment and an important escape for children who are in longer-term hospital care, helping to boost their mood and keep children from feeling helpless in a difficult and challenging situation.

VR and Mental Health Care

In contrast to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques that are based on imagination and recall, VR can actually create lifelike simulations for mental health patients dealing with past trauma. VR places them back in problematic past experiences but this time in a safe environment, with professionals working with them to lower their stress and anxiety levels, adapting their emotional response to this situation in the long term. The use of avatars in virtual reality treatment can even help mental health patients form new neural pathways, because the connection between body and the avatar is so strong, helping them to achieve more optimal behaviour in reality and benefitting their overall health and wellbeing. Specially developed VR programmes such as Bravemind – a programme specifically designed to help treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder –  has helped soldiers process their experiences, leading to fewer, shorter, less intense PTSD episodes for many.

Augmented Reality and Phobia Treatment

Augmented reality merges digital contents with the real environment, a step beyond the real environment around you but not the fully-immersive experience you get with VR (– think of the game ‘Pokémon Go’ as a good example of AR!) AR is being used successfully in treating mental health conditions such as phobias, with therapists guiding patients through a process offering “interaction” with a phobia stimulus through AR technology and working on the patient’s response to this virtual phobia trigger. The goal is to reduce the level of fear and avoidance before the AR exposure session and promoting learning after the AR exposure session. This slowly desensitises the patient to their phobias in a way they are comfortable with and without having to face their fears in reality, potentially causing harm and distress, until they have the skills to do so post-treatment.

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