Before carrying out a neurosurgery procedure, Dr. Neil Martin and his team at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center take a test drive through the patient's brain.
Using a controller, the team zooms around blood vessels, navigating the brain's complex architecture to examine all angles of a tumor or pinpoint an aneurysm.
What looks like a neurological video game is actually a high-tech simulation, allowing medical personnel to take a deep dive into a patient's brain prior to surgery.
With the Surgical Theater SuRgical Planner platform, medical personnel can use standard medical imaging to create 3-D virtual renderings of brain structures.
"[The platform] gets you closer to a very real experience, a very real review of the anatomy,"
Martin, who serves as chair of neurosurgery at UCLA Medical Center, told Healthline.
Virtual reality has been making headlines for its potential to transform the ways we interact with our environments.
Breakthrough technologies like the Oculus Rift headset have made for incredibly lifelike experiences, notably in gaming and other forms of digital entertainment.
Aside from its boom in the media sector, virtual reality has also emerged as an innovative tool in healthcare.
Both virtual and augmented reality technologies are popping up in healthcare settings such as operating rooms, or being streamed to consumers via telehealth communications. In many cases, virtual reality has enabled medical professionals to execute care more safely and effectively.
Global Industry Analysts projects that the worldwide market for virtual reality in healthcare will reach $3.8 billion by 2020, indicating that the demand for such technology is unlikely to slow down any time soon.
But in the midst of all the hype, advocates want to prove that virtual reality holds tangible value for patients and providers.
Power to the Patient
As virtual and augmented realities enter the mainstream, the technologies have become more accessible to the general consumer population.
With a $15 price tag, Google Cardboard allows users to stretch physical limits with a smartphone -- no extensive scientific knowledge required. That same philosophy is being applied to virtual reality in the healthcare industry, empowering patients to take charge of their health.
Dr. Leslie Saxon, founder and executive director of the USC Center for Body Computing, is leading several initiatives to make virtual and mixed reality more patient friendly.
The center's Virtual Care Clinic system features an app that connects patients to medical expertise similar to what they would receive at the doctor's office. The app displays Saxon's image, guiding users through different courses of medical care.
But patients using the app aren't interacting with Saxon herself. Instead, they are following instructions issued by a virtual rendering of the doctor.
Using a virtual human agent may seem like a detached method of doctor-patient communication, but Saxon believes it to be the exact opposite. With this kind of technology, she told Healthline, patients could get their questions answered in an environment free from judgment. They can access information on their own time and at their own pace.
"It's not this patriarchal system anymore where in this closed room we dictate to a patient and they're expected to remember it ... It's more of a continuous partnership," Saxon said.
A proponent of patient education, Saxon is also behind an initiative to offer patients on-demand medical literature that complements physician recommendations.
"My patients are really smart and informed," she said. "When we have a visit it's a really enriched experience and that's how I want everybody else to be under the virtual care."
Another center at USC is exploring the possibilities of virtual and augmented reality to help patients work through their anxieties.
At the Institute for Creative Technologies, Albert "Skip" Rizzo, Ph.D., is at the helm of a virtual reality exposure therapy system to treat PTSD. The Bravemind system, designed for veterans grappling with the psychological impacts of war, immerses users in triggering combat scenarios to help them confront trauma.
Exposure therapy has been shown to be a successful treatment for people suffering from PTSD and other anxiety-related disorders. But the scenarios in which trauma originate are rarely feasible to recreate.
A virtual combat zone, however, provides a safe environment in which to support veterans. It's about building upon proven therapies to open up greater possibilities for care.
"There's no magic to VR in the sense that by ... putting someone in VR you're going to fix them," Rizzo, director for medical virtual reality at the institute, told Healthline. "You always have to look at what works in the real world and can we amplify or extend those treatments."
Improving Delivery of Care
When it comes to risky medical procedures, too much preparation is seldom a concern.
That's especially true of surgery, in which "one misplaced suture or one misaimed cut can be life changing, or in rare extremes, fatal," Martin said.
Because it requires such extreme precision, surgery is one area of medicine in particular that stands to benefit from virtual reality technologies from companies like Surgical Theater.
"It allows us to see critical structures like blood vessels and avoid them more easily," Martin said. "We're not inching along millimeter by millimeter, uncertain what's around the next corner. We already know from the review with virtual reality."
Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas are taking advantage of virtual reality's potential to improve safety with two initiatives involving operating room personnel.
The staff is being trained in equipment protocols and surgical scrub procedures with a full-body tracking system that maps a user's movements onto a virtual avatar. With the technology, users can observe proper donning and doffing from a first person perspective.
Researchers are also using the full-body tracking system to demonstrate setup, intraoperative procedures, and cleanup processes to nonsurgeon staff.
"Medical VR training can ensure that healthcare professionals are aware of proper procedures and protocols, can allow them to practice those procedures without harming others, and can inform those workers what the consequences of bad practices could be," Ryan McMahan, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science at the university, told Healthline. "Altogether, these aspects should ensure that healthcare workers are better prepared for their jobs and ultimately provide better patient care."
Proving Its Value
For as much as virtual and augmented realities in healthcare have advanced, experts stress that the technology is still in its early stages.
As is typical of most emerging technologies, getting the public on board is a hurdle for virtual reality proponents to overcome.
One major obstacle is cost. While some argue that virtual reality could potentially reduce some expenses over time by cutting down on medical equipment and expediting certain procedures, the initial costs for some technologies may be prohibitively expensive.
For example, high-end platforms from companies such as Surgical Theater can run hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Such a significant investment in up-and-coming technology is likely to evoke a healthy amount of skepticism, especially when its value is still yet to be fully realized.
But experts like Rizzo strongly believe that virtual reality has already demonstrated its value to the healthcare industry.
When speaking at conferences Rizzo often asks, "Would you prefer that your pilot learned about wind shear from a book or on-the-job-training? We're not just talking about skill learning," he said. "We're talking about creating virtual experiences that may be well-matched to the needs of certain clinical applications."
By Julia Haskins