Virtual reality (VR) has seen a leap in both technology and accessibility in the past decade. A wide variety of standalone and tethered devices are available to consumers at a reasonable price, like the Oculus Quest 2 and the HTC Vive. A majority of the public interest around VR has been as an immersive gaming experience, but the practical applications of VR go far beyond videogames. In recent years, VR has become a subject of intense interest in medicine and medical education.
A Treatment Modality
One of the major subjects of interest for VR has been post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders. Several studies have investigated whether VR can be used to help people suffering from PTSD. These found that VR could enhance the effects of exposure therapy on PTSD symptoms. Still, it is unclear how applicable these results are to a general population as the sample groups were predominantly male military service members. Other studies examining VR as a treatment for members of the general public with anxiety disorders or depression found promising results regarding symptom relief.
Clinicians have also found novel methods to apply VR in the context of other psychiatric disorders. Patients with major psychotic symptoms like paranoia, persecutory delusions, and functional impairments found symptom relief by VR-based cognitive therapy. Some studies have found that addiction disorders like substance use and gambling demonstrated that VR could provide a safe environment to undergo exposure therapy without relapse. Body image disorders seem to respond well to VR as well, with bulimia and binge eating disorder patients experiencing symptom relief for up to a year after VR therapy.
VR has also been applied to the management of neurodevelopmental differences as well. Promising results have emerged, revealing that VR improved attention span similar to the more traditional continuous performance test training but with greater enthusiasm from participants. Some therapists use VR to help children on the autism spectrum develop social skills in a consequence-free environment with guidance from a therapist.
An Educational Tool
The field of medicine does not only benefit from VR as a treatment, but also as a powerful educational tool. VR is enabling immersive training programs that can reduce costs by avoiding costly props and other expenses. These simulations have the advantage of being versatile and highly customizable. The SimX system, for example, allows for the creation of tailor-made simulations to match the specific needs of each user. This is especially useful for training for less common conditions wherein finding simulations would require travel or pose a long wait time.
Finally, VR is bringing the promise of remote learning to new levels. With VR and online services, learners worldwide can work together to tackle each scenario in real-time. In times of social distancing and learning from home, VR provides an alternative to endless web meetings that is both engaging and effective.
The field of medicine is finally reaping the benefits of decades of advancements in VR technology and public interest. Although more research is needed to determine the best methods to use VR in healthcare, it is apparent that the technology will play an ever-increasing role in medicine in the coming years and shape the future of medical education.