Virtual reality isn’t just for gaming. Researchers and tech companies are using VR to transform medical therapies and bring state of the art medical training to the masses. By doing so, they’re improving patients’ lives and making life-saving procedures available to millions of people who haven’t had access to this kind of care.
Strokes can have devastating consequences on people’s lives. Patients often spend years in therapy working to regain their mobility and functioning. Sadly, many never fully recover. MindMaze, founded by Dr. Tej Tadi, combines virtual reality, neuroscience, brain imaging, and some gamification to help patients activate the injured portions of their brain and recover from strokes faster than they would with traditional therapies. The platform is designed to allow patients to engage in therapy without a medical provider present. This is critical because time is of the essence when recovering from a stroke. Patients who start therapy immediately are found to have better outcomes. The countless hours patients spend in bed waiting for medical providers to visit can be spent engaging in therapy to maximize recovery. When it’s time to be discharged, the patient takes a system home to continue the work.
Treatment for Patients with Spinal Cord Injuries
While researchers at Duke University were working to develop robotic prosthetics to help paraplegic patients with spinal cord injuries walk again, they came across something completely unexpected. They set out to train patients to use their brainwaves to simulate control of their legs, using Oculus VR headsets. Surprisingly, all the patients who engaged in the virtual training regained some motor skills and feeling below their injury. In less than a year of training, 50 per cent of the patients were reclassified from fully paralyzed to partially paralyzed. Scientists believe virtual walking helped restart the communication between the surviving nerves and the muscle receptors in the patients’ legs.
While the patients can’t walk on their own, most were able to regain some bladder control and bowel function. They are once again able to control their bathroom routine. These improvements not only improve the patients’ quality of life, but they also lower their risk of infections, which are the leading cause of death in people with chronic paralysis. The researchers are still working with the patients to determine how much progress they can make. They’re also starting a second study with patients whose injuries are more recent, to determine if the earlier treatment will improve the outcomes.
Advanced Medical Training
In the past, medical students have had limited access to hands-on learning opportunities. However, now in the digital age students can learn anatomy online using interactive tools. With a shortage of cadavers, students have spent most of their time learning through reading, lectures, and watching two-dimensional videos. However, progressive medical educators like Western University of Health Sciences are enabling students to interact with human anatomy like never before. The college recently opened a first-of-its-kind virtual reality learning center that allows students to conduct virtual dissections, take a trip inside the body, and observe multiple views of organs at the same time. The students report they have a deeper understanding of anatomy and of the relationships between systems. The faculty reports the students are more engaged in the learning process and have higher retention and test scores. This all leads to better patient care.
In emergency medical situations, it’s critical that medical teams are well trained. The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland has developed a fully interactive VR medical training simulator and released the training app to the public on the Oculus Virtual Reality platform. This is the first fully interactive training simulator that’s been made available to the public. Medical professionals and medical students throughout the world can put themselves in the shoes of emergency department personnel to assess patients in crisis situations, make critical decisions, and perform life-saving operations in real-time.
Surgery for Those in Need
Currently, 5 billion people around the world don’t have access to safe surgery, largely due to a global shortage of surgeons, anesthesiologists, and obstetricians. According to Dr. Shafi Ahmed, cancer specialist and co-founder of Medical Realities, 2.2 million surgeons need to be trained to address this shortage. This would save 17 million lives. Dr. Ahmed and his partners have set out to solve this problem.
While one surgeon can only train a few surgical trainees at a time in a traditional setting, there’s no limit to the number of surgeons that can be trained through VR. Medical Realities blends VR with augmented reality to capture 360-degree videos of real operations. With only a 3G connection and inexpensive Google Cardboard, students from around the world can place themselves in a leading-edge hospital and follow surgeries from start to finish.