VR is Being Used in Hospitals to Help Treat Patients

Quick, what uses of VR can you think of? Probably entertainment, maybe even some uses in learning and teaching? Sure, sure. Some hospitals in France have recently implemented VR devices in their ERs. Why? In order to combat pain.

Sounds a little weird, doesn’t it? It’s not as weird as you may think. Researchers have discovered that VR is perfect for distracting patients from phantom pains and fear. Some dentists in other parts of the world already use VR headsets as part of their treatments. When used this way, the headsets mainly display calming and relaxing environments rather than action-packed scenes or even gaming. While some simple games that don’t require too much movement do have potential here, so far it’s mostly passive scenes that are being used to calm patients down.

It’s actually not as outrageous as it sounds at first glance. Visiting the dentist or an ER usually comes with a significant amount of stress, fear and pain. Correctly used, VR can distract from that quite a bit. While it doesn’t numb the physical pain at all, the mere fact that it distracts the wearer of the headset from what is happening to them significantly improves their pain tolerance.

What does this mean? Well, it means that VR headsets could be used to reduce the amount of medication given to patients in the future. Graduate students at St. Joseph’s Hospital in France have developed an immersive virtual program specifically to help patients relax during painful procedures.

According to Dr. Olivier Ganasia, head of the hospital’s ER department, using VR during treatment is a little like hypnosis:
“(It) enables us to offer patients a technique to distract their attention and curb their pain and anxiety when being treated in the emergency room…I think in 10 years, virtual reality won’t even be a question any more, and will be used in hospitals routinely”
Make no mistake, this doesn’t mean that they will soon be performing open-heart surgeries without anaesthesia (though some chumps in the comments will probably make comments like that without looking things up first). No, the point of these headsets is to help during minor procedures. This could include things like painful bandage changes, or the removal of stitches.

In other words, not overly invasive and minor treatments that end up causing the patient more anxiety than actual pain. France isn’t the first country to do this either – Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Stanford uses VR headsets to calm young patients that are afraid of their doctors. Children that may otherwise need to be sedated can be distracted with VR, a much healthier alternative.

While this use of VR technology is still new and relatively unexplored, experimental uses have shown huge success. In some situations, it may be able to replace painkillers, anaesthesia and sedation altogether. Often, hospitals administer pain killers to patients that feel fear or anxiety more than actual physical pain to relieve their discomfort. This, although effective, may no longer be necessary in the near future.

This is far healthier for the patient’s system and also cheaper for everyone involved – in places like America, where patients are often charged for medications, this could be a less costly alternative. The helpfulness of VR goes beyond that though – while it hasn’t been conclusively confirmed just yet, VR also shows great promise when it comes to reprogramming our nervous system to be less responsive to pain.

That doesn’t mean that an hour per day on your Oculus Rift will turn you into an unfeeling super soldier, simply that there may be uses for the technology to help chronic pain patients deal with it better. That’s pretty incredible for a piece of technology that was written off as a fad just a few short years ago!

Given the opportunity, would you give VR in the hospital a try? Does the thought of a Zen garden or a tranquil forest sound like it could make up for painkillers? Do you think it has uses past those of entertainment and teaching? Let us know in the comments.