Is virtual reality healthcare? Here’s what’s stopping adoption
Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably in medical settings, augmented reality, virtual reality, metaverse, and augmented reality refer to different ways of interacting with the digital environment. Augmented reality overlays information on what the user sees in real life, such as car speed and navigation displayed on the windshield, so the driver doesn’t have to look elsewhere. Virtual reality conveys a completely different set of visuals, typically requiring glasses costing anywhere from under $10 for a piece of cardboard that holds a user’s phone to over $5,000 for more immersive settings. While the metaverse has been defined in several ways since its inception in the early 1990s, its latest iteration, popularized by the company formerly known as Facebook, features a 3D social platform where users can interact with each other’s avatars. And augmented reality is a general term to describe any or all of the above concepts.
There is a growing interest in the medical field to use technology to access the digital world. The number of studies and research articles mentioning virtual reality in PubMed, the database of biomedical literature maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, has increased annually over the past decade. In the first two weeks of 2023, the topic was mentioned more than 150 times.
Some leaders believe that this technology could change the way healthcare is delivered. According to an Accenture report last year, nearly half of payer and health care provider organization leaders believe that digital engagement will have a “disruptive” or “transformative” impact on their systems.
“It’s important to start thinking about it if you haven’t already,” said Rich Bierhansel, senior managing director and head of global healthcare at Accenture.
Health systems have begun to use virtual reality in addition to training new doctors. Five years ago, the Hospital for Special Surgery discovered that it was devoting a lot of staff time to teaching residents the basics of surgical procedures that could just as easily be learned outside the operating room.
The leaders of the educational institute of the organization suggested looking for an alternative. Dr. Michael Ast, Director of Medical Innovation and Associate Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at the Healthcare Academy, helped create a virtual reality training program for orthopedic surgery residents that they must complete before entering the operating room. Wearing goggles, residents of the main New York campus simulate several of the procedures they are likely to perform during surgery.
Ast said the virtual programs have helped residents make better use of their study time. While the organization does not rate residents based on their performance in the modules, it does collect data to potentially establish possible benchmarks.
“We are asking our residents to complete major surgical procedures for each of these specialties — fractures, joint replacement, hand and pediatrics — as soon as they begin their rotation,” Ast said. “Go through it 10, 20, [or] 50 times, whichever fits their schedule.”
The training “allows them to get a lot more out of the rotation as they really come in with a completely different level of experience,” Ast said.
The hospital has been working with Osso VR, a virtual reality surgical education and assessment platform, to help create clinical education software. East said the level of vendor participation has allowed the program to grow from a small number of modules to a campus-wide expansion over the past five years.
“I think that’s how innovation is done,” he said.
Some older surgeons were skeptical at first, but Ast encountered little resistance when they entered the virtual operating room and saw the technology in person. He said finding clinical staff to work with technicians and drive internal adoption is vital to integrating VR into any healthcare system.
“You want to find someone in your system who believes in it, who is willing to spend some time understanding and developing how you are going to implement it,” Ast said. “You want to find your champion.
Dr. Justin Barad, co-founder and CEO of Osso VR, said he is introducing the technology to healthcare organizations as a way to complement, not replace, learning. Osso VR provided the platform and equipment for free, but the Hospital for Special Surgery devoted what Ast described as significant staff time to developing and maintaining the program. The leaders are considering collaboratively developing a training initiative for use in other orthopedic hospitals.
“It will take some time to realize [in other health systems]but ultimately, I see it as the ultimate standard of training for orthopedic residents,” Ast said.