Virtual reality has long served as PR for events or a conversation piece at medical conferences. But as the technology becomes more common and affordable, it’s slowly making its way into the clinic. Here are just a few ways:

  • Mental illnesses such as phobias, PTSD and anxiety can be addressed by giving the patient an immersive experience that can challenge them safely — a tactic used in cognitive-behavioral and exposure therapy.
  • Telemedicine makes it possible for experts to see patients anywhere, regardless of geography.
  • Training scenarios give healthcare professionals practice in treating all kinds of cases and emergencies, including allowing surgeons to rehearse procedures using 3-D settings, simulations.
  • Pain management is another type of therapy being pursued — for everything from helping distract patients from the discomfort of necessary care to helping patients with phantom-limb pain by providing a virtual limb so their brain can learn to “relax.”

Virtual reality can look like an Oculus Rift headset. It can look like a wall or an entire room of screens. And, of course, there’s augmented reality, using a mobile device’s camera screen to layer information on “reality.”

The potential for VR in healthcare has been clear for decades, for healthcare practitioners and for consumers.

  • As early as 1999, Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceutical had developed the Virtual Hallucinations (also called Paved With Fear or Mind Storm) experience, which used a video headset and surround-sound speakers to immerse a participant in everyday life as experienced by a person with schizophrenia.
  • And today, with Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Gear VR and others, high-quality VR at accessible price points are coming to consumers. Most exciting of all, 5 million Google Cardboard glasses — self-assembled and made out of, literally, cardboard — have shipped to date.

As barriers to entry lower, the potential applications multiply threefold:

  • Empathy: Offerings like the Virtual Hallucinations system can validate the patient experience by making it possible for non-patients to experience the  symptoms of a condition firsthand — a powerful tool for conversations with payers, HCPs pr Caregivers.
  • Diagnostic: VR can also function diagnostically. If a user makes certain choices in a game, it could help an HCP come to a diagnosis.
  • Consumer: The applications in the home can only be imagined, too. What if a new parent’s phone could function like a Star Trek “tricorder” and save them late-night trips to the emergency room? Or a weight-loss VR experience could help a patient truly see how they could move through the world differently at a different weights.

The pharmaceutical industry can harness the power of virtual reality in a variety of ways, both to augment treatments and to provide treatments of its own. Currently, an Intouch team is working on an exciting VR project that has the potential to apply this emerging technology to help physicians better understand their patients’ condition — yet another example of digital technology’s ability to invent, reinvent and individualize healthcare. We’re excited about the potential of virtual reality to change the real world.