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How Virtual Reality will empower the future of NHS care

With the NHS is facing large budget cuts of up to £1.1bn, there is an increasing need to create and implement new technology-based treatment methods to relieve pressure from GP surgeries and hospitals. As the main two essential points of treatment and diagnosis for patients, there is an over-reliance on GPs and doctors as the sole providers, holding all the power and responsibility of patient health. If technology were successfully implemented, treatment could be taken outside of clinical environments, empowering patients to have the independence and reliability to diagnose and treat their conditions from home.

This need for technology based healthcare is highlighted in our recent poll of 1000 consumers. With 42 per cent of consumers discouraged from visiting the doctor due to waiting times, as well as 36 per cent waiting a week or more to get an appointment, there is a clear gap for technology innovations to bring healthcare treatments closer to home. 

Integrating VR in the home

With virtual reality (VR) technology leaders such as Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear Lite changing the face of gaming, there is no better time for VR to break into the medical industry. Patients who spend much of their time dealing with long-term illnesses, constant check-ups and health monitoring in hospitals would find VR a life-changing addition to their day-to-day lives. These types of patients can feel empowered with the opportunity to care for and monitor themselves. 

VR technology can be accessible 24/7 meaning that the equipment could be used at any time. Those patients that suffer with depression, anxiety and other mental health problems will also benefit from having constant access to the technology as soon as they need it, saving valuable time for patients including reducing the likelihood of taking time off work.

VR as a tool for therapy 

As 78 per cent of consumers in our poll currently believe current rehabilitation methods are not successful, home-based VR systems will be able to transform this perception by taking standard procedures from inside clinical environments inside the comfort of the patient’s home. By doing so, patients have the opportunity to work through after-care and therapy at their own pace, rather than being limited to appointment times.  

The demand for VR group therapy sessions is already evident, with 52 per cent of consumers expressing a readiness to try virtual reality for group rehabilitation. By doing so, the sessions can provide a chance for those who are anxious and uncomfortable in traditional group therapy sessions to feel safe with anonymous avatars hosting and participating within the session. If VR were to be implemented in this nature, the more traditional face-to-face therapy sessions could begin to drop, taking pressure of this area of the healthcare service. 

Transforming medic training 

Although there is an emphasis on the benefits of VR for patients and consumers, the technology can also be beneficial for training doctors, surgeons and the medics of the future. As the elderly population increases, so does the need for those doctors who are specialising in geriatric care and the ongoing requirement for younger generations to completely understand their patients. 

A recent Embodied Labs project called “We Are Alfred” uses VR to help bridge a growing gap between new training medical students and their geriatric patients who are over 60. Where a training doctor may have no real experience and knowledge of what it feels like to be this age, and the impairments or deteriorations they may have developed, students can be immersed into a hypothetical patient’s life complete with audio-visual impairments. The benefit of this project was clear, the doctor could experience firsthand what it's like to be told you have an impairment, as well as learning more about the patient’s personal and family relationships. 

Obstacles to overcome 

If VR systems for rehabilitation and in-home use could be implemented tomorrow, one of the biggest barriers for adoption would be the current perception and understanding of VR in a consumer setting. Our research discovered that 70 per cent of 65+ year olds said they would not be interested in using VR, highlighting this age group is uneducated on the technology. However, our research found that 18-30 year olds were mostly positive, understanding how it could benefit their health.  

Overall the vast majority of doubt in the implementation of VR comes from the unknowns presented by a change in traditional methods, including worries about the system’s capabilities. The main issue presides in the potential training needed to prepare patients to use the technology. Questions will be raised such as what happens if a patient becomes emotional when they’re unsupervised at home and there is no one to help them? Healthcare providers will need to question whether VR will require extra training and therefore money to deal with these unpredictable situations in order to let the patient become completely independent.

The future is VR   

However, if healthcare services incorporate connected technologies such as VR systems into the home, the cost savings for the NHS could be vast, with potential to save at least 60 per cent on the average cost per patient. With VR based rehabilitation services and group therapy sessions in the pipeline, successful adoption would mean that people would be hospitalised for much shorter periods, consequently freeing up over-burdened doctors and nurses with the treatment times on each patient being much shorter. 

In order to make this vision real, healthcare services must educate patients on the practicalities of VR systems to ensure all age brackets feel confident using the technology. Looking even further to the future when VR becomes mainstream, attention will turn to how to make the technology seamlessly part of the generic healthcare system. When this happens, VR will be a powerful tool that will one day change the landscape of healthcare. 

This article, written exclusively for ITProPortal, is a summary of Plextek’s paper ‘The Future of Connected Home Health’.

Collette Johnson, Director of Medical, Plextek
Image Credit: Marbury / Shutterstock

Collette Johnson
Collette Johnson is director of medical at design and innovation consultancy Plextek where she helps companies with strategic positioning relating to product development. Previously at NHS Innovations she was programme lead for the national SBRI healthcare programme.