Virtual Reality: An MVP in Healthcare Innovation?

Imagine what it’s like to experience dementia or a visual impairment – what life really looks and feels like from inside that world.

Or imagine simulating a live surgery as a medical student, holding the scalpel in your hand, hearing the voices of your medical team around you, surveying the choices without risk of harm or mistake.

With advances in virtual reality, you can. The applications for the technology are leading change in the industry by offering enhanced training experiences and experiments in empathy by actually transporting viewers “into another’s shoes.”

It’s a safe bet to say that virtual reality has the potential to alter healthcare in profound and lasting ways.

At The Better Lab, we’re working to advance a project that uses virtual reality to train emergency medicine, surgery and anesthesia providers on collaborative teamwork, professionalism and empathy to improve the care experience during 900 trauma activations. The hope is to develop a training experience using 360 video and immersive storytelling to help these unique teams work together with greater insight. The project is a partnership with David Sarno, of Lighthaus Inc., an award-winning virtual reality studio that has pioneered immersive experiences in healthcare and education, and media technologist Sam Stewart, who has extensive 360 video production experience and trains journalists on the use of digital tools for storytelling at Google News Lab.

Learning from David, Sam and others about the landscape around this technology has been an exciting journey.

One thing we quickly discovered: It’s hard to enter the world of VR without finding yourself at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, founded in 2003 by Jeremy Bailenson. Bailenson studies the psychology of VR – in particular how virtual experiences lead to changes in perceptions of self and others. His lab builds and studies systems that allow people to meet in virtual space, and explores the changes in the nature of social interaction, with recent research focusing on how VR can transform education, environmental conservation, empathy, and health.

Bailenson’s work also led him to a rich partnership with Derek Belch, a former Stanford Cardinal football kicker and assistant coach. Belch did graduate work at Stanford, and his Master’s thesis explored virtual reality applied to sports training. The results of this work led to the development of STRIVR, which created the market for virtual reality sports training.

Who does STRIVR train? Not just the Cardinals (and Cal), but the Giants, New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys, and more.

STRIVR takes a 360 camera to practice and films as close as possible to the decision maker – usually the quarterback or a linebacker. Later, when the athletes come for film study they can transport themselves back to the field to do additional reps. The video is used to get extra practice in a world where mistakes are free so that they can make the best possible decisions in real time. Or, as the STRIVR website describes it: “Unlimited practice repetitions anytime, anywhere. From the exact vantage point of where you actually play the game.”

It’s easy to see why this would lead to healthcare, where physicians and medical teams often work in high-stakes environments where seconds can mean the difference between life and death.

The work of STRIVR has been so successful that they’ve expanded to corporate, enterprise and medical training.

Although the medical space for virtual reality is much younger, the core product for training is similar – “creating virtual reality experiences that allow people to get extra reps so they can be as prepared as possible for their day jobs.”

The applications for empathy training are newer, but no less fascinating or promising. Stanford’s Bailenson did a study that put people in VR to experience color blindness, with a control group going through the same experience in 2D. Both were then given the opportunity to help the colorblind. Results indicated that the VR group spent twice as much effort to help persons with colorblindness compared to participants who had only imagined being colorblind. Those are powerful results.

The technology is also being used to understand “implicit bias” in ways people behave – not to cure them of bias, but to make people aware of bias so they can align their behavior with their values.

Other ways that virtual reality is changing healthcare?

• Relaxing chronic patients by transporting them outside of the hospital to visit a landscape in Iceland or swim with whales in the ocean

• Making children in the hospital feel like they’re at home by taking 360 cameras into their actual homes and allowing them to experience the familiar

• Helping students and physicians experience life as an elderly or impaired person to improve understanding and communication 

• Speeding up recovery for stroke victims by starting rehabilitation earlier, with patients “practicing” how to lift their arms and move their fingers with the help of virtual reality

Improving hospice and end-of-life care by helping those with limited mobility to experience life outside treatment and give them a chance to go back to places in their past that hold fond memories

It’s a tech horizon that’s reaping some big bets. In 2014, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg bought Oculus VR, one of the most prominent virtual reality startups in the industry, for $2 billion. The plan? Zuckerberg expects to spend over $3 billion in the next decade to improve virtual reality and make it accessible to the masses. Today virtual reality may still linger on the margins, but future activity and growth seems inevitable – and the opportunity for innovations in health are vast.

Eric Williams, Co-Creator of OU’s Immersive Media Initiative, said it best in a recent interview: " This technology is so new that the next steps are only limited by our imagination."

We look forward to sharing our own experiences in VR in the future.