Virtual reality can improve care and change lives with immersive technologies

In a major NHS trust in London, a ‘practical and sensible approach’ to immersive technologies is delivering significant gains for patients and staff.

What are immersive technologies?

VR (virtual reality): An entirely artificial environment offering complete immersion in a virtual world

Augmented reality (AR): Virtual objects superimposed over a real-world environment. Digital objects enhance the real world for users.

Mixed reality (MR): Virtual and real worlds combined. Users interact with both real and virtual environments.

Healthcare has undoubtedly benefited from immersive technologies due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust has been working with clinical partners to pinpoint areas where virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) will have the greatest impact on patient care [1].

According to Tom Carlisle, a digital innovation fellow at CW+, these technologies offer practical ways to support and engage patients and staff [2].

Their approach to VR is practical and sensible, ensuring patients and the organization benefit. Earlier work focused on virtual reality headsets that immerse patients in an environment that relieves their symptoms. 

Trials have shown that this method reduces anxiety and pain experienced by children in A&E (Accident and Emergency). The study also found that patients’ sleep quality and anxiety, stress and pain were improved in intensive care.

Education, training, distraction

Today, they use immersive technologies in various ways, including education, triage and distraction.Medical students can stream into clinics remotely using Microsoft’s HoloLens glasses across their hospitals [3]. As a result, training resources have been relieved of some of their burden.

VR is also used by Kiin to train staff on equality, diversity and inclusion. Unlike a real-life classroom, a textbook, or online learning, the VR environment replicates real-life situations from different angles [4]. Funding was awarded to innovative digital ideas submitted by trust staff through the CW+ RADICAL funding call.

The importance of early diagnosis

Immersive technologies can also assist with early diagnosis, which is not only beneficial for patients, but it also frees up clinicians’ time. The visual element of VR has recently been explored as a method to detect dementia in its earliest stages.

Virtual reality is being used as a distraction tool and an alternative to pain relief. As an example, Smileyscope headsets are available to assist women experiencing pregnancy loss [5]. Here, patients can observe a relaxing scene or follow a guided meditation during a manual vacuum aspiration procedure, thus reducing anxiety.

Additionally, Smileyscope features in the development of immersive arts in health projects by providing children with educational experiences, games and relaxing distractions before and during medical procedures. Several organizations, including San Diego Zoo and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, broadcast moving animal footage to pediatric patients [6]. It improves the patient experience and reduces the need for pain relief, reducing staff workload.

Virtual reality can improve care and change lives with immersive technologies

In addition, they are keen on the future of immersive technologies at their trust and throughout North West London. There is so much potential.

VR could be used to distract and relieve pain for oncology patients in the Chemotherapy Day Unit. It could be used to educate patients and provide a faster and more efficient remote diagnosis – and why not use AR in surgery as well?

Using Proximie, surgeons can interact virtually as they perform procedures with AR and AI technology. Patients in rural areas no longer need to travel to acute hospitals. X-rays could also be improved by using this technology, bringing 3D images into the delivery of care and anatomy in real time [7].

An opportunity like no other

The immersive technologies, particularly MR, seem to offer unique opportunities to improve the patient experience. Several projects are exploring different applications of MR in the early stages of development. 

For example, as part of their ‘Best for You’ young people’s mental health program, they are exploring the use of MR screens and projectors in children’s A&E by overlaying virtual text and images on walls, signs and other fixed elements in the environment to inform and calm young people. [8]. Meanwhile, they wait to for assessment.

They are also developing projects in children’s mental health services and Adult ICUs to introduce MR tours of clinical areas that integrate images and videos of real-world environments with virtual details about equipment, staff and procedures anticipated to be used by new patients. 

They are partnering with Little Journey, who have shown that these MR tours can reduce anxiety and speed up recovery time in pediatric surgical pathways [9]. They aim to replicate these benefits across multiple clinical settings and patient groups.

The tech will keep improving, but its prevalence depends on how well-trained people use it and its acceptance by patient groups, staff and individual patients. Immersive technologies can be used across many clinical pathways, as they can change lives.


Photograph: Wavebreakmedia/Envato
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