Virtual reality offers new opportunities for care and empathy


Virtual reality will be one of the key emerging technologies that can be deployed to help augment and improve access to healthcare, experts at HIMSS21 Digital said.

In a panel moderated by Michael Crawford, associate dean for strategy, outreach and innovation at Howard University, Brennan Spiegel, director of health services research at Cedars-Sinai Health System, and Megan Brydon, PACS applications specialist, diagnostic imaging, at IWK Health, discussed the mainstreaming of virtual reality, including the addition of gamification to increase engagement.

However, it was noted by both panelists that there is apprehension about adding yet another layer of tech to an overwhelmed healthcare workforce.

“We’ve been using VR for the past six years, treating more than 6,000 patients with VR, and we’re constantly learning how to use VR for patient care,” Spiegel said. “We’ve been focused on acute pain and managing chronic pain, and science isn’t the barrier anymore, it’s about who will pay for this stuff, and who’s the clinician in charge of all this.”

Brydon pointed to the increasing success of VR as a tool to help provoke an emphatic response, particularly looking at formal and informal (family) care providers.

“We found VR was able to leverage and provide resources to a lot of individuals who are really feeling the burden of caring for family members and friends, and the idea that we can build these skills is really valuable,” she said.

Spiegel pointed to use cases for VR that include therapeutic opportunities for chronic pain, cognitive behavioral therapy and mental health, particularly for those in rural areas who may not have easy access to physical healthcare and trained physicians.

“We can bring that therapy into someone’s home, and every day they can have a session with the equivalent of a pain psychologist but in a VR headset,” he said.

Brydon noted that a major benefit of VR-based care, be it therapeutic or otherwise, is that it allows you to access it wherever you are — a benefit not limited to rural areas.

“If you’re at work or at home, it provides you with that access,” she noted. “We’re at a point where people have access to phones, and if we can go through those channels, as things get better, faster and smaller, we can do more in that small space, and have that VR bedside or wherever you happen to be. That goes for patients as well as providers.”