Innovation Sunnyview

Virtual reality is finding a place in health care

Many patients are understandably nervous before having surgery. There are a lot of unknowns, and it’s an unfamiliar environment. But Sunnybrook anesthesiologist and assistant professor of anesthesia at the University of Toronto’s Dr. Fahad Alam is hoping to change that by immersing patients into the experience a week or two in advance, using virtual reality as part of a new research study.

Virtual reality consists of putting a person in a computer-generated environment or experience that is interactive. Using 360-degree cameras, Dr. Alam and his research team developed a virtual tour, walking patients through all the steps they will experience from the time spent in the pre-surgical waiting area to the time they are anesthetized. Study participants view the video on a special headset, and their anxiety levels are measured on a rating scale before and after surgery. And anxiety levels matter because they are linked to many negative outcomes, including prolonged hospital stays and an increased risk of infections.

Dr. Alam says this is just one example of the broad potential that comes with virtual reality applications in health care. And there are many others that are currently being studied or utilized. Alzheimer’s patients can be immersed into virtual reality environments during MRI testing, allowing researchers to see what areas of the brain are activated to assist in diagnosis. Some burn patients are being exposed to virtual reality apps that immerse them into a cold world of snow and ice, helping reduce their need for pain medications. Virtual reality can help provide a form of exposure therapy to patients with fears of certain places or things. And it is also playing an increasingly popular role in medical education, allowing future health-care workers to hone their skills in a whole new way.

Sunnybrook is collaborating with The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) on the use of virtual reality, and also augmented reality. Think Pokemon GO, where a real-life environment is overlaid with computer-generated characters. At SickKids, they are testing this technology to ease the fears of children coming into surgery. As they are wheeled into the operating room, children are welcomed by an animated puppy dog perched on the surgical table, tail wagging.

“We are the only hospitals that are starting official labs in Canada when it comes to immersive education like this,” says Dr. Alam. He says the sky is the limit in terms of how and where these applications can be used. And with increasing research in the area – including his pre-operative anxiety study – that will only serve to give this fun approach to technology more weight.

“I want it to be more than cool. It needs to be validated to make sure it’s effective,” he says. “It’s been a fun road, and a long road, but we’re getting there.”

About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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