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Understanding the Value of Virtual Reality for Healthcare

In a recent conversation with Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo, Ph.D., Director Medical Virtual Reality-Institute for Creative Technologies, and Research Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California, he shared his perspectives on the development and future promise of VR in the clinical setting.

Is VR a Magical Tool?

Dr. Rizzo indicates that “There’s nothing magical about VR, although you might get that experience if you do a well-executed VR application—you may feel it is ‘magical.’ But there’s nothing magical about the technology. It’s simply a tool, which is what the term technology derives from in the original Greek words, techne and logos. In our clinical use, it’s a tool to deliver a treatment in a novel way that might engage people, which might afford more opportunities to precisely control the stimulus conditions in imaginative ways, and draw people into therapy that they may benefit from, but would never seek in the traditional format. And within the controlled and engaging stimulus environments that VR can deliver we may be able to provide better opportunities for the real time measurement of performance or behavior in response to those simulations that represent the challenges that people face in everyday realities.”

Should we “Virtualize” Everything?

“I’ll be the first one to say, our intention is not to virtualize everything about mental health, rehab, and healthcare. There are some approaches that are not suited to become ‘virtualized.’ But where the clinical approach is well-matched to the assets that VR provides, then I think there is a quantum leap just ahead. There are more VR startups in the last two years than in the previous twenty. Some of those companies will shake out, and there will definitely be wreckage along the way because, in a lot of cases, some of these companies come out of a game development ecosystem rather than a healthcare ecosystem where different forces are at play. Sometimes people see a research paper and want to start a company around it, but they don’t understand that this isn’t the game industry where you build a cool game and people pay to play it. This is healthcare—in healthcare we have a higher calling.

Where Are We Headed? What is on the Horizon for Healthcare Virtual Reality?

“Things are still shaking out, but there’s been a renewed interest in VR since around 2012, particularly with the level of investment that’s been put into the field, again driven by the gaming and entertainment media industries. There’s still certainly a lot of over-hype right now—similar to the mentality that was around in 1993 and 1994. But when you sift through the hype and you actually look at the functional nature of what a VR simulation is, you can see more clearly than before where it can add value. VR can do some things you simply cannot do in a traditional format, and now we have a lot of research behind it. And that is essential when developing VR healthcare applications—you’ve got to be able to document that what you’re doing actually does what you claim it does. You need the research support to do that.”In looking at the future of VR, Dr. Rizzo highlights a number of key success factors.

“Now is the time to be supporting some of the research where you can show some wins. The first win, of course, being better clinical outcomes. But you also have to think about cost. How do you reduce cost? How do you engage people in their own treatment in ways that promote wellness? I think those answers exist, but not in a straight line. You’ve got to be smart about it.

We are now at a point where we have developed some advanced research prototypes (and some products like BRAVEMIND), but these research-supported systems are now “screaming” to escape the lab for dissemination. We are always interested in partnering or collaborations to move this effort forward. That’s my mission now—to be more focused on getting things out the door and doing things on a larger scale than what we’ve been able to do in the past. The technology has caught up with the vision, and this brings us to a point where these applications are well-poised to have a wider-scale impact on public health and wellness.”

This article is taken from our recent complimentary eBook, The Future of Learning: New Technologies Influencing Clinical Development. Download the eBook here.

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