Applications for virtual reality in outpatient surgery centers — 3 Qs with an expert

Dov Hirsch, general manager for virtual reality technology developer Immersive Health Group, a subsidiary of The Glimpse Group, weighed in on the future of VR technology in healthcare.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for style and clarity.

Question: Where do you think VR's impact on healthcare will be in the next few years?

Dov Hirsch: Today there is a wide range of cases where VR is being tested in outpatient facilities, clinics, surgical centers, post-acute care, home care and hospitals. They range from virtual entertainment and travel to mental health treatment or high-risk simulation training. Over the next several years, many of these will fall by the wayside for several reasons. Most VR solutions and companies will not be prepared to deliver measurable value at the level required by their health system customers.

Virtual reality solutions with staying power will be defined by their ability to create better healthcare experiences for both patients and caregivers, improve clinical outcomes and quality and bend the cost curve. And do so on an order of magnitude. Virtual simulation training will likely represent the greatest contribution to healthcare in the near term, paving a path as an essential learning and development tool for new and existing caregivers. Virtual digital health applications filling significant gaps in care, such as mental health and pain management, will also continue to thrive, playing a vital role as a self-care resource.

Health systems are eager to solve the challenges facing their organizations and communities, addressing both mission and margin drivers alike. Emerging technologies, like VR, provide tremendous promise and have the ability to deliver exponential impact on quality, clinical and bottom-line outcomes.

Still, health systems are slow to change. Within each community and each system, they will need to go through their own processes to asses, pilot and implement VR solutions to realize the value. First-class VR solutions will not be enough. The VR companies that understand the nuance of healthcare at the industry, community and point-of-care levels, and can deliver the services to support their provider partners as they adopt new technologies, will ultimately be the ones ensuring VR is here to stay.

Q: What are the current trends you're seeing right now with virtual reality in healthcare?

DH: Healthcare is considered to be among the top industries leading adoption of virtual reality. It should be noted that as an industry, healthcare is often considered a laggard as it relates to the innovation adoption curve. There are a number of theories as to why VR has momentum in the space. In short, VR offers unique value in DIRE circumstances (Dangerous, Impossible, Remote, Expensive). Healthcare certainly fits the bill for any number of reasons, like the degree of risk associated. Perhaps more influential are the broader market conditions dictating demand and forcing major healthcare stakeholders to more actively assess these emerging tech solutions, and others, that historically would have experienced greater difficulty in gaining traction.

The results of the supply/demand gap will be seen in every aspect of the care continuum, from patient experience, clinician burnout, staffing shortages and turnover to increases in medication errors, infections, and ultimately, mortality. Not to be alarmist, but this may be the single greatest challenge facing our health system today, and it will require solutions that can deliver exponential value. Virtual reality is emerging as a solution to exponentially address the supply/demand gap, delivering risk-free training for caregivers and providers to repeatedly practice, make mistakes and learn from them. Employers and educational institutions alike understand this and are now looking at VR to deliver impact and competencies at scale.

The second significant application of VR we are witnessing today is in the field of pain management. More than 130 people die every day from opioid-related drug overdoses, with more than 11 million people believed to be misusing prescription opioids. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, and provider organizations have become central in stemming any potential misuse or dependancy at the patient level. Now more than ever before, providers are actively seeking nonpharmacological pain mitigation/management solutions for their patients. VR is now in the consideration set of low-cost/high-impact solutions for patients in both acute-care and outpatient settings. While not appropriate for all indications and circumstance, a large and growing body of peer-reviewed research demonstrates that VR has a high degree of efficacy as a pain mitigation tool, predominantly in what is often referred to as distraction therapy.

Q: How do you see VR affecting patient care?

DH: The greatest challenge for VR in healthcare is also its greatest opportunity — the potential to impact patient care is limitless. However, focusing on simulation training and pain management, VR’s impact on patient care and other important considerations will be measured, as most technologies are within the healthcare provider industry, including if it improves outcomes, patient experience, caregiver experience and if it generates a return on investment.

If VR can prove its value in all four of these metrics, healthcare will serve as the launchpad for rapid adoption of VR beyond its roots in gaming. For simulation training, the data is already compelling that VR addresses the entire Quadruple Aim and is proving itself as a must-have, as opposed to a nice-to-have. Better and more training/education has perhaps the greatest impact on patient care than any other intervention one may consider, not to mention direct positive impacts on the clinicians themselves, improved quality, reduced risk and direct financial gain. The problem, until recently, was the inverse relationship between learning efficacy and scalability of educational/training tools. The most scalable solutions (i.e. manuals, videos, etc.) have historically been the least effective at translating knowledge into practice. Simultaneously, the least scalable solutions (i.e. 1:1 mentorship, clinical rotations and simulation) have been the most effective. VR is reversing this relationship, serving as a subject matter amplification tool to deliver on-the-job-training, simulation experience and mentorship, and proving itself to be a scalable solution to deliver highly effective learning.

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