Virtual Reality Could Be Your Next Prescription

Virtual reality startup AppliedVR is working with hospitals like Cedars-Sinai to prove that virtual reality is viable for patient care.

Hospital inpatients could soon be given a different type of prescription to manage their acute and chronic pain – a healthy dose of virtual reality (VR).

Speaking at the Pacific Design and Manufacturing show, Dr. Vartan Tashjian, an internist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and Josh Sackman, president and co-founder of AppliedVR, a Los Angeles-based VR company, talked about their research into the patient care benefits of VR. Their recent work points to the potential of using VR as a viable alternative to drug-based treatments.

“A hospital room is not for comfort. They're for suffering, and patients are trapped there,” Tashjian told the audience. “We thought what a wonderful thing it would be to bring VR to the bedside to take our patients to fantastic destinations.”

Tashjian provided some anecdotal evidence in the form of a video of a sickle cell anemia patient, hospitalized for over 100 days, seeming to forget all about his condition when exposed to a VR experience (roaming a photorealistic nature environment). “I've been practicing medicine for a couple of years and there's not much that I can do that provides relief to patient that rapidly and that profoundly,” Tashjian said of the video.

But Cedars-Sinai and AppliedVR have also done research to back up these claims. In a study outlined by Tashjian, a group of patients exposed to VR showed a larger reduction in pain, and were more likely to experience a reduction in pain than a control group that was exposed to television for the same amount of time.

The researchers asked patients to report their pain on a scale of one to 10 (10 being the highest). They were then asked to put on a Samsung Gear VR headset and explore a 360-degree animated nature environment for six minutes. The control group watched a natural channel on TV for six minutes.

AppliedVR's research shows VR to be a valid option for pain management. (image source: AppliedVR)

At the end of the study 40% of the TV group reported a reduction in pain after the experience. By contrast 65% of the VR group reported pain reduction. “People watching TV had a reduction in pain, but when you compare that to VR there's no competition, Tashjian said.” VR has a very unique style of decreasing someone's pain.”

The VR treatment also scored a low number-needed-to-treat (or NNT) of four. The NNT measures the of the impact of a drug or therapy by estimating the number of patients that need to be treated in order for one person to be impacted."For drugs like morphine the NNT is around two to three, which rivals that of our VR intervention," Tashjian said.  

He added that the experience doesn't have to be limited to computer-generated environments either. Thanks to devices like the Samsung Gear 360 camera, patients can also have real environments streamed to them in VR and even speak remotely with people.

He also cautioned that VR is not a one-size-fits-all solution. “VR is not for everyone. Why? Because a lot of people come into the hospital that have headaches, nasea, vomiting, seizures, trauma to the face...These patients cannot use VR without adverse effects,” Tashjian said.

AppliedVR's Sackman elaborated, saying that since VR is such a subjective experience, patients are going to need a sort of “VR pharmacy,” wherein they can download experiences that most appeal to them.

“Any form of media is not one size fits all,” Sackman told the audience. “What you need is a collection of experiences that have been tested for a clinical audience, because you have different ages, interests, and medical conditions.” Branding itself as a “Netflix for validated therapeutic content,” AppliedVR already offers 25 unique patient experiences.

Sackman said the number of experiences will only continue to grow and improve as more and more patients go through VR and researchers are able to incorporate biometric data like EEG and heart rate as well as demographic information on VR patients to better cater experiences to individuals.

“VR can work well and there's places it doesn't work. Which allows us to focus on areas with more potential,” Sackman said. “As we get more feedback from different use cases we get insights into what patients want and need.” AppliedVR's hope is to eventually move beyond acute pain and anxiety into chronic pain, diabetes, hypertension, and substance abuse treatment. “VR has higher engagement and can provide greater accessibility and more rention because it's more fun,” he said.

Use cases are already emerging. In December 2016 a women in New York became what is believed to be the first patient to use VR for pain management during childbirth. “If VR can help manage the pain and anxiety of childbirth there are a lot of other areas where VR can play a role,” Sackman said.

Chris Wiltz is the Managing Editor of Design News.

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