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Virtual reality (VR) mostly makes headlines among gaming enthusiasts big and small.  Gamers love to don a VR helmet and enter a fantasy world where they are transformed into a warrior, goddess, or other character.  One of the most promising uses of virtual reality, however, is how it will transform healthcare in the immediate future for all of us.

I just got back from attending the tenth annual Body Computing Conference at USC Keck School of Medicine, Center for Body Computing.  A number of the standout presentations used virtual reality (VR) applications to improve health care outcomes.

virtual-reality-person-holding-vr-goggles-with-glovesOne of the most striking presentations was the reality that your doctor could soon have a virtual double (an avatar) who can make hundreds of house calls digitally to patients 24 hours a day.  Picture your doctor being replicated in 3-D with her unique face, body and facial expressions.  This is now your virtual doctor who is available to you on your smartphone app, 24 hours a day.  Then picture your health profile (example, diabetes, pregnant, depression, early Alzheimer’s, etc.) being programmed into the app, along with hundreds of the most frequently asked questions.  Patients with a digital health prescription may access healthcare service any time of the day, and ask her virtual doctor countless questions which may relieve anxiety and bring answers to the patient faster and less expensively.

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In another application, 3-D photos of a heart patient’s entire chest cavity are taken, and the heart surgeon then dons a VR helmet to practice performing a complicated heart operation on the 3-D mock-up of the actual patient’s heart and surrounding bones, arteries, veins, and muscles.  One could immediately see how this VR-enabled practice session would vastly improve the success of the operation by giving the surgeon a detailed and accurate look at patent’s actual body parts and to allow the surgeon to determine the best point of entry and procedure for a life-changing heart operation.

virtual-reality-woman-with-vr-goggles-at-conference-in-red-dressA hackathon took place just before the conference and I was fortunate to see the three top teams presented their telemedicine apps to win a $10,000 cash prize.  These teams were challenged to use VR to help teach young medical students empathy for their patients.  The winning team, Embodied Labs, used a VR helmet to place the medical student viewer in a virtual world where elderly “Alfred”, an African American man, suffers from severe hearing loss and the inability to see in the middle of his field of vision.  In this world where sight is difficult and not being able to hear what is being said to you, the VR experience puts the medical student in a situation where Alfred is at a dinner party and can’t hear what is being said to him or see his own birthday cake.  At a doctor’s appointment, he cannot hear or see what is being asked of him and so he daydreams.  The VR experience typically makes the medical student viewer feel frustrated and lonely, and to lose interest in her surroundings.

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A second hackathon team used a VR helmet to mimic the insistent negative thoughts and feelings that a severely depressed person feels and hears, in order to help medical students understand that a depressed person simply cannot “shake off” depression easily.  These inventive uses of VR were not only creative but effective in teaching empathy to medical students, a critically important skill.

This is our future; we can look forward to using virtual reality tools to improve the success of operations, to help bring us empathetic new doctors, and to bring us our virtual doctor who is available right from our smartphone.  For women in our busy lives, these ground-breaking innovations could be key to our health and happiness.

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