Virtual Reality’s Very Real Place in Medical Care

From wound care to mental health therapy, VR is carving out a place in the health world.

Nejron Photo/Shutterstock

Imagine this: A burn patient winces with pain as a nurse attempts to delicately change her bandages. Lying stiffly, the patient gently puts on a pair of virtual reality goggles, entering a world of steep icy canyons crawling with arctic creatures. There, she can throw snowballs at penguins, hide out in igloos, or simply gaze around the cold blue world—anything to distract her from the burning sensations shooting through her body.

After some time, she’ll become immersed in a virtual land called SnowWorld. Developed by Dr. Hunter Hoffman and his colleague Dave Patterson, SnowWorld is used as a method to distract burn patients from excessive pain during wound care.

“Although VR is still in the research phase, the results of our clinical studies with burn patients consistently show encouraging results,” Dr. Hoffman told The Daily Beast.

This is one of many unique ways virtual reality is being introduced in therapy and medicine. With advances in software and recent interest from the gaming industry, more dynamic virtual environments are being made, allowing users to become absorbed in complex worlds.

Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo, director of Medical Virtual Reality at the Institute for Creative Technologies in Southern California, uses virtual reality in exposure therapy with soldiers who experience post-traumatic stress from war. He’ll put patients in a simulation where, for example, they’re driving a Humvee and an IED goes off.

“In addition to having the patients imagination spurred by that experience, the clinician is observing all of this,” Rizzo said. “Now the patient has the opportunity to say, ‘See what that was like? That was horrible.’”

But using VR in clinical settings isn’t without its critics. “They say you’re using VR instead of imagination,” Rizzo said. “I say no, hold up, we’re stimulating their imagination. We’re helping the patient to process their trauma or challenges in a provocative way.”

“VR is a tool that extends the skills of the clinician,” he continued. “It doesn’t replace the clinical skills.”

Dr. Lucia Valmaggia of King’s College London is using VR for people with other kinds of mental health issues. She recently appeared on Al Jazeera to demonstrate how the process works in her lab.

Alika Agidi-Jeffs, a musician who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, volunteered to try out the virtual world designed by Dr. Valmaggia and her colleagues. On the subway while going through a manic episode, Agidi-Jeffs was filmed—without his knowing—soulfully singing a Rihanna song. The video went viral.

“Over 2 million people viewed that clip of me on ‘the tube,’ but what they didn’t know is that I was actually going through a lot of anxiety, depression, and basically having a manic episode… having a breakdown,” he said.

The humiliating experience was a “tipping point” that caused him to “hide away” from the world. He spiraled downward, eventually becoming suicidal, believing his family and friends would be better off without him.

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Using this, Dr. Valmaggia immersed Agidi-Jeffs in a social situation he would usually abhor: the dreaded public bus. While on the virtual bus ride, Dr. Valmaggia asked him to think about the impression he was making on the commuters, and also to think about their impressions of him.

After several virtual sessions on the crowded bus, paranoid thoughts of people looking, pointing or laughing are believed to diminish in power. Coping within the virtual world lends itself to coping in reality, affording the patient a better quality of life, Dr. Valmaggia said.

The virtual world becomes a low-stakes space to expose individuals to typically stressful environments. Patients can opt-out at any moment, unlike older, arguably more sadistic behavioral therapy techniques where there is nowhere to escape from the stimulus.

Dr. Valmaggia said it’s difficult to describe a virtual environment if you’ve never been in one yourself. “It’s quite different than watching a 3-D movie. It’s a full immersion experience. You really feel like you are in the environment, and your body responds as if you are really there,” she said. “It’s ecologically valid, so you really feel like it’s real.”

“Virtual reality is the ultimate Skinner Box,” Dr. Rizzo told me. “It allows for people to engage with their environments and work through challenges in a unique way, offering new hope and a better quality of life for those who occupy a real world of paranoia, trauma, or pain.”