Immersive reality for improved healthcare delivery

HTC International

By Thomas Dexmier, ANZ Country Manager at HTC VIVE
Friday, 10 May, 2024

Immersive reality for improved healthcare delivery

Immersive technologies, in the form of virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR), have emerged as powerful tools to help improve a wide range of health outcomes. This is particularly true in recent years as the technology has developed at an accelerated pace, so both technologies are available in a single headset, and referred to as extended reality (XR). XR headsets have become autonomous whilst remaining versatile, lighter yet more powerful, more comfortable and more inclusive, opening up new possibilities in the healthcare sector.

From assisting with mental health challenges to supporting surgical procedures and boosting physical fitness, here are three ways immersive technologies are improving the landscape of healthcare delivery.

Surgical procedures

Immersive reality can be used as a powerful tool to support surgical training. VR headsets with precise movement tracking, in combination with software that represents different surgical instruments held by the controller, can help medical students learn complex surgical techniques without the barriers caused by distance or the risk of live procedures. In fact, there are programs all over the world leveraging the power of immersive technology.

In the UK, University College London’s (UCL) work with ARuVR is setting an impressive standard to follow. Through virtual training, UCL has tripled the number of students able to view surgical procedures, while minimising patient risk and saving time and resources. In addition, the use of immersive technologies was found to help students develop skills faster and retain more knowledge.

Meanwhile, in the US, NYU Langone used immersive technology to help them achieve the highest survival rates in the country for neurology and neurosurgery procedures in 2022. VR enabled surgeons at NYU to rehearse surgical procedures on accurate 3D models of patients’ brains, empowering them to collaborate with colleagues more easily to try different approaches and perfect their routine. Arguably the proof is in the outcomes, and NYU Langone has used immersive technology to make a significant positive difference and is now a top-ranked hospital for its niche.

In the near future, remote surgery will be entirely possible thanks to sophisticated robotics, fast internet and immersive headsets. This is especially useful for emergency scenarios as well as high-specialised procedures where experts may be physically distant from patients in need.

Mental health

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 43% of Australians have experienced a mental health disorder at some point in their life, and 17% of the Australian population experienced anxiety disorder in the last 12 months alone. To combat mental health issues like stress, anxiety and depression, practitioners often recommend mindfulness practices such as breathing exercises, meditation and getting into nature. This is where immersive VR can assist.

There is a large cohort of Australians who find it difficult to meditate without guidance, and who cannot easily access the remedial benefits of face-to-face guided meditation or time spent in nature. But by using immersive technology and mindfulness apps such as AtOne, individuals can experience a multi-sensory approach to meditation and immerse themselves in peaceful environments, from serene forests to tranquil beaches.

Notably, bodies like the Australian Institute of Sports’s European Training Centre have already integrated apps like AtOne into their programs, and VR has also been used to support veterans and defence personnel, who may be at higher risk for mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and PTSD. This is achieved through exposure therapy, which digitally transports them back to places they may have visited during the war so they can work through trauma.

Though these examples are compelling, the use cases for VR in supporting mental health are not limited to long-term mental illnesses. In fact, research has found that immersive virtual reality could be used as a distraction tool to reduce pain, anxiety and anger levels of emergency department patients, showcasing the versatility and efficacy of immersive technologies in treating psychological distress across a broad spectrum.

Physical fitness

People don’t often think of technology as an enabler of physical fitness, but there are definitely use cases. In 2023, HTC VIVE deployed a VIVE Focus 3 onboard the International Space Station (ISS) to support with mental and physical health. To create a more engaging exercise experience, ESA astronaut and ISS Commander Andreas Mogensen has been using a FERGO exercise bike alongside a VR experience built by the Danish Aerospace Company.

Considering how immersive technologies are already being used across healthcare highlights their variety of use cases and benefits when it comes to improving patient outcomes. As headsets become smaller, lighter and more intuitive — while maintaining high resolution and high tracking accuracy — use cases for the technology will grow too, offering more possibilities for healthcare providers and patients. With countless use cases for XR in health care yet to be explored, we are yet to see the full extent of its potential. And I can’t wait to see the transformative impact it will have on patient care and health outcomes in the years to come.

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