Breaking Borders – PharmaTimes Magazine June 2021
With technology evolving at breakneck speed, it’s fair to say the sky is the limit when it comes to using virtual therapies.
For many years, the notion of virtual worlds and digital realities was only the preserve of science fiction. But, as the digital revolution continued at a rapid pace, advancements in technology have allowed virtual reality to cross the boundaries of real life, transforming the way many industries operate.
From travel and education to architecture and aviation, the demand for virtual reality has exploded over the past decade as business leaders and innovators leverage its benefits through training, early stage design and development; and customer engagement and interaction.
According to the IDC (International Data Corporation), global spending on virtual and augmented reality is expected to increase six-fold, from $ 12 billion in 2020 to $ 72.8 billion by 2024 and accounts for two-thirds of all consumer electronics. Yet despite this, healthcare has been slow to keep pace with many of its counterparts when it comes to adopting new digital capabilities.
This is not to say that virtual reality is a completely new concept for the medical profession. For decades, scientists have harnessed the benefits of immersive technology in treating patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). More recently, technology has advanced in helping surgeons create 3D models of patients’ organs.
However, its medical use has largely focused on education. The perceived high costs associated with the deployment of technology and a traditionally cautious approach to digital innovation mean that many sectors of healthcare are still in the early stages of realizing its vast potential for patients.
The events of the past 15 months, while catastrophic, have ushered in a new era for health care. Health systems have been strained as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with patients facing long-term mental and physical health crises on an unprecedented scale. As a result, the need for new and innovative healthcare solutions has never been more critical, and the endless potential of virtual therapies is rapidly emerging.
The power of virtual reality
Virtual reality therapy involves immersing patients in three-dimensional simulations of real-life scenarios. The massive investments made over the past decade by companies like Google and Facebook, among others, have helped create richer, more elegant, more immersive and more realistic virtual environments.
These powerful simulations have already made significant strides in the treatment of PTSD, but many studies in recent years have started to show its untapped value in helping to treat a number of other health conditions and reduce pain in patients. the patients.
A pilot study conducted by St George’s Hospital in December 2019 found that 80% of patients undergoing upper limb surgery felt less pain after wearing a virtual reality headset during the operation. Likewise, preliminary data from studies exploring the effectiveness of digital therapy in helping patients with phantom limb pain has also shown promise. Scientists have found that by using powerful distraction techniques, pain pathways can be redirected, preventing signals from reaching the brain. This discovery could have groundbreaking and far-reaching consequences for the healthcare industry and patient outcomes in the future.
But virtual reality has the potential to be more than just a form of distraction therapy; it also offers the possibility of developing personalized rehabilitation programs. For example, Swiss tech group MindMaze recently launched a tele-neurorehabilitation program for stroke patients in the United States, providing access to MindMotion GO’s digital play therapy program from the comfort of their own homes. Using motion legend technology and accompanying manual dexterity hardware, therapists are able to monitor individual patient movements, providing a level of tactical support comparable to treating patients in person.
This level of customization also holds great promise for people requiring mental health care. A recent study in the Log of medical signals and sensors highlighted the success of virtual reality in treating claustrophobia, which adds to a growing body of research on the effectiveness of digital therapies in helping patients overcome psychological disorders.
In 2020, Oxford VR made waves with its virtual mental health program to address anxiety social avoidance, prevalent in multiple conditions, including agoraphobia, panic disorder, social anxiety, depression and schizophrenia. Patients are guided with the help of a virtual coach and can access situations that are often impractical in face-to-face therapy.
Mental health is complex and requires a personalized approach to understanding triggers and needs in order for treatment to be truly effective. Allowing patients to be gradually and systematically exposed to individual scenarios that would normally create a difficult response has been shown to build better coping mechanisms.
Personalized healthcare for the future
In today’s hyper-connected digital age, personalization has become a part of everyday life, from the way we bank to the way we buy and consume entertainment. For the healthcare industry, personalized virtual therapy represents an exciting opportunity to deliver tailored and more effective patient treatment programs.
Huge advancements in artificial intelligence and cloud technology have made it possible for virtual reality software to collect and store personal data to improve patient therapies. Data tracking functions, including respiratory rate, facial expressions and eye movements, provide healthcare professionals with detailed insight into how patients are feeling and how they are responding to the treatment provided, which will be particularly useful in mental health and wellness programs.
We’ve already seen that start materialize in commercial applications of the technology, with the launch of the Oculus Supernatural app – the first subscription-based full-body fitness service for virtual reality. Highly intelligent and personalized measurements allow the app to calibrate user’s height, arm span, squat depth, and lunges to adjust goals and exercises specifically mapped to the individual.
With technology evolving at breakneck speed, it’s fair to say the sky is the limit when it comes to using virtual therapy. In the future, the use of mobile devices and smartphone apps to deliver virtual therapies in homes, schools and community spaces is likely to integrate seamlessly into the delivery of patient-centered daily care. the patient.
There are of course challenges to overcome. Access to standalone and affordable all-in-one headsets will be needed to advance the technology for widespread adoption. There will also be a greater need for regulatory interventions and frameworks that provide patients with assurance that treatment programs and applications are suitable. Still, the benefits are significant. The technology can be seen as expensive and out of reach, but deploying virtual reality is likely to be more cost effective. A recent study found savings of around £ 70 per person, due to the lack of risk of addiction that prevails with opioids and a reduced risk of side effects.
Healthcare VR is also a major growth sector, with an expected compound growth rate of 29.1% over the next 4 years, so it is a key area for investment. Despite fears that not everyone is keen to try virtual reality treatments, even the older generations have shown acceptance and are reaping the benefits.
COVID-19 has strongly highlighted the limits of the health sector and brutally reminded us of the fragility of the system. In the UK alone, figures released last year showed there was a backlog of 4.4 million people awaiting treatment due to the pandemic. Health systems also face an aging global population and, with it, declining physical and mental health. This perfect storm will act as an accelerator for virtual therapies to become mainstream.
While we haven’t unlocked all of VR’s processing capabilities yet, we’ve seen the technology transform a number of other industries, and those that have thrived have one thing in common. They welcomed the disruption that this unique new technology has brought with it, and they have rebuilt their proposition with virtual reality at the heart of their digital offering. Now is the time for health care to follow suit.
Paula Bellostas Muguerza is Partner and Head of Health Practice Europe, and Afonso de Brito Canelas, Partner, at Kearney