Blog Post

VR and AR in Healthcare: The Future is Near

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What if the next time you went to get blood drawn, the nurse slipped on a headset that allowed them to pinpoint the precise location to stick the needle? Or if, instead of having to travel to your therapist’s office, that office—complete with the tools and visuals that are vital to treatment—came to you whenever you needed it? These scenarios not as far-fetched as one might think.

VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) use computer-generated perceptual information to transform or augment a user’s environment. Although the terms are commonly used in tandem, they are two different types of technology:

  • VR places the user in a different, simulated environment using computer-generated sight, sound, and touch sensory stimuli. Users feel as if they have been transported to a completely separate environment.
  • AR provides computer-simulated enhancements that overlay a user’s existing environment. Users do not feel transported but can interact with their existing environment in more or different ways.

The VR and AR healthcare market in the US is projected to grow from $976 million to $1.635 billion by 2022, or 68% in the next five years, meaning now is the time for organizations to start thinking about its implications.

Better Patient Care

VR/AR changes or enhances the patient’s perception of their environment and can be incredibly useful when dealing with conditions that require cognitive behavioral therapy or altered visual states for treatment.

Providers can use VR/AR to disrupt environmental triggers or thought patterns that lead to harmful behaviors such as addiction. For example, Bravemind treats PTSD by transplanting the patient into a carefully curated, immersive, simulated war zone where the clinician has full control of the stimuli so they can direct treatment. Through repeated exposure, the clinician can modify a patient’s thought processes to treat symptoms and possibly even the source of the disorder. This type of framework can be applied to other types of illness, offering new avenues of hope for high-cost, highly complex conditions such as opioid addiction, heart disease, and diabetes.

Companies like Vivid Vision use VR technology to correct eye disorders through a comprehensive assessment, therapeutic games, and live monitoring of a patient’s progress on the platform.

Enhanced Physician Training

VR and AR technology can also improve the way providers train and perform work. For instance, Medical Realities and SimX allow physicians to practice procedures in immersive, simulated environments experienced through VR headsets. Residents can build confidence in their skills before operating on actual patients and receive training without the burden of having to travel to other locations.

Improved Physician Operations

Other companies, such as Augmedix, use AR technology to reduce physicians’ administrative workloads by integrating real-time remote scribing and head-up display of patient information through Google Glass smart glasses, which could help alleviate physician burnout.

These advances can also translate to operational savings for organizations by reducing the need for physical medical training space and supplies (e.g., cadavers) in favor of headsets and simulators that can replicate any number of training environments.

As history has taught us, we cannot assume that reimbursement will evolve at the same rate as the technology, so organizations will need to evaluate their individual situations to determine whether and when to invest in VR/AR technology. Presently there is no additional reimbursement for using VR/AR technology to care for patients, so value must be realized through improved outcomes and operational savings. Organizations that currently offer telemedicine services and provide a large portion of their care under risk- or value-based care arrangements are operationally and financially better positioned to invest in VR/AR. Organizations need to consider:

  • Which, if any, of their services could benefit from VR/AR technology.
  • The cost to purchase hardware for those services.
  • Patient privacy and security risks.
  • How to track and demonstrate the impact of VR/AR technology.
  • Their employees’ and patients’ appetite for innovative technology.

VR/AR technology can revolutionize the way some organizations operate yet have very little impact on others, so it is the organizational leaders’ responsibility to determine where they fall on the spectrum. We know this technology is coming, and it’s essential that leaders make conscious choices about it.