VR and the Future of Healthcare
Sep 01, 2020 Cedars-Sinai Staff
The future of healthcare is likely to be a more virtual experience, but not in the ways that you might expect.
In recent years, virtual reality (VR) has become a promising area of health and science research.
"VR is not a brain trick. Training our minds is a capability we all have. VR just has a way of tapping into it in a different way."
"A lot of people think of VR as it relates to gaming and entertainment devices, but when used in a positive way, VR can be a profound benefit to human health," says Dr. Brennan Spiegel, director of Health Services Research at Cedars-Sinai.
We talked to Dr. Spiegel about the exciting ways VR is being used in healthcare, the VR research Cedars-Sinai is involved in and how VR technology can help both patients and doctors.
VR for pain management
Chronic pain is a serious health issue that may affect 11% to 40% of adults in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
VR technology could be a possible solution to help patients manage chronic pain.
"At Cedars-Sinai, one study we are involved in is focused on a non-drug approach to managing chronic pain, specifically lower back pain," Dr. Spiegel says.
For this study, researchers are following patients for up to 90 days to study if they experience a meaningful or significant change in their pain level after wearing a VR headset.
"We're looking at the ways that VR might help you learn to train your attention to focus on experiences beyond the pain, using the time-tested techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy," Dr. Spiegel says.
VR as an empathy tool for doctors
Some hospital systems are using VR simulations as a way to help doctors better empathize with their patients.
"It can be challenging for doctors to feel what it's like to have dementia, or what it's like to be a family member taking care of someone with Parkinson's disease or to have a migraine headache," Dr. Spiegel says. "All of these examples can be simulated in VR to help doctors better understand what their patients are going through."
During these VR simulations, doctors experience having specific health conditions or being in certain real-life situations, such as being the target of verbal abuse in a domestic violence scenario.
"For the person in the VR simulation, the experience is much more impactful than just thinking or learning about it," Dr. Spiegel says.
"By using VR as a tool for empathy, doctors can be more engaged with their patients' needs and better understand what it's like to be their patients."
Using VR to educate patients and prevent disease
In 2017, Cedars-Sinai collaborated with a church in Los Angeles to launch a preventive health program aimed at reducing high blood pressure in the African American community of South L.A.
As part of the program conducted in partnership with Dr. Bernice Coleman in the Cedars-Sinai Nursing Research Department, participants watched a VR video on a mobile phone that showed the effects of sodium intake on the body, illustrating how eating foods high in sodium can directly lead to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
"When you actually experience it in VR, seeing salt damage your heart and your body could motivate you to make long-term changes in your diet," Dr. Spiegel says.
VR's impact on mental health
Currently, VR is being explored as a way to help people relieve stress, combat anxiety and achieve a more peaceful or relaxed mental state.
In a method known as therapeutic VR, users wear a VR headset and experience a simulation designed to calm their mind.
"When it's effective, people can achieve monk-level meditative abilities very quickly, without having to practice for years to get to that point," Dr. Spiegel says.
"Especially for people who aren't as familiar with mindfulness practices like mediation or yoga, this VR technology can help patients achieve a flow state very quickly."
Dr. Spiegel says some might worry VR is being used to manipulate a person's mind, but that's not true.
"VR is not a brain trick," Dr. Spiegel says. "Training our minds is a capability we all have. VR just has a way of tapping into it in a different way."