Digital Health needs Virtual Reality and VR needs you!

Learn why therapeutic VR is so important to the success of digital health and why Denise Silber wanted to co-found VRforHealth.

The Origins of Digital Health: When computers and software were invented over 60 years ago, clinicians began to identify uses for them in medicine: statistical analysis, hospital information systems, computerized medical records… The birth of telecommunications furthered telemedicine. I became engaged in the digital transformation at the beginning of the Dotcom boom in the mid ‘90’s. EHealth websites, forums, and newsletters had begun to multiply, but the healthcare world was not necessarily on board. I would explain to astonished healthcare audiences how patients and physicians could collaborate through these tools. And I continued to do so when smartphones and app stores brought us mobile health, when connected objects led to connected health, and so forth.

Every set of innovations created its platform, generated new hope for the growing number of digital evangelizers, and then hit upon the same challenges as the previous. When applied to healthcare, none of these technologies seemed to achieve the impact of a new medicine, device, or surgical tool. Rare were the professionals who felt these digital tools were a must have. And the divide continued between the real people and those they called geeks.

Virtual Reality seems different from other digital tools, and it is different. VR is digital, but it also has therapeutic properties. VR can treat patients for a variety of conditions: multiple forms of anxiety and stress, depression, pain. It can facilitate rehabilitation. While it is of course not for every patient, it works for men and women, the young and the not so young. A patient with severe chronic pain or a recent fracture, a person with a fear of heights, a woman in labor who wants to give birth without sedation, a person who needs to re-learn to walk, a person with some fragmented memories of their past …These are but a few of the examples for which virtual reality can make a remarkable difference.

The technology of three-dimensional viewing is not new; it has been evolving since the stereoscope of 1838. The term Virtual Reality was proposed in 1987, by Jason Lanier, inventor, philosopher, businessman, and it stuck. The VR headset took a giant leap forward in 2011, when 18-year old Palmer Luckey created the prototype of the Oculus Rift. His company was purchased by Facebook in 2014, and I became interested in therapeutic VR when the Oculus and Google cardboard made the technology more accessible. An Oculus Go sells for around 160 euros and Google Cardboard costs around 25 euros for two copies.

Headsets can be accompanied by wired or datagloves that enable haptic or touchlike feedback. Data suits containing directional sensors can send electrical signals corresponding to the wearer’s movements.

Clinical research on VR has generated 2651 articles pertaining to therapeutic virtual reality on PubMed as of May 1, 2020, with 343 in the year 2019. These articles feature VR in rehabilitation, anxiety and depression, pain, use during chemotherapy, dementia, and more.

Still, these are early days. Therapeutic VR is not a standard course in medical school. For most people, Virtual Reality is an activity for gamers. And yet, Virtual Reality holds such promise for patients. In this time of confinement and lockdown, Virtual Reality is also the only technology that can truly take us somewhere else.

The dream of VRforHealth is for every clinician and patient engaged in conversation about relevant conditions to be able to at least consider the option of VR therapy. Will you join us in this quest? Tell us how you would like to connect with VRforHealth.

by Denise Silber, also seen in her VR gear below at the Harvard Visualization Lab

Denise Silber immersed in Virtual Reality