Virtual Reality And Its New Role In Alleviating Chronic Health Conditions

People used to say that “taking someone out of themselves” was beneficial to their mental well-being. But now this has a new, highly technological twist using virtual reality (VR) technology that promises to bring immense therapeutic benefits to people with a range of chronic health conditions.

VR is often considered to be one of those technologies that has enjoyed much hype but has seldom delivered much outside gaming or entertainment, where it is now a major part of the experience. But having witnessed its effect on residents with dementia and other conditions in a care home, I can see that the technology has far greater potential.

I found that within seconds of donning the VR headset, residents with memory loss and dementia were immediately more relaxed and happier. Residents in wheelchairs who had been very agitated and subject to involuntary muscle-movements, head and neck pain, were transported away by the experience, becoming perfectly calm as smiles crossed their faces. The effect was incredible. A young woman in a wheelchair who had not been able to walk on the beach because of her disability was able to do so, to her obvious delight. Wearing the headset she was looking down to see her feet as she went walking along a tranquil shoreline.

Similarly, a woman suffering from agoraphobia who had never been outside the care home for several years was able to fulfil her wish to see animals in the wild, embarking on a virtual walk in woodland brimming with squirrels and other attractive creatures.

While it can never be a substitute for care, VR undoubtedly has great potential as a therapeutic tool, perhaps reducing the very high levels of expensive medication required to maintain calmness and freedom from agitation in the long-term ill.

The quality of the VR experience improves with each day and can be set at just the right level of stimulation so that users are neither made anxious nor sedated. Having enjoyed a VR version of the Northern Lights in the great outdoors of the arctic, I found myself feeling the heat of the bonfire I was supposedly next to, even though I was sitting in an office in Cardiff. It was real enough for me to involuntarily start warming my hands.

As VR of this quality becomes more commonplace we are likely to see it used in a wide range of contexts such as care homes and children’s hospitals. In the latter institutions, the technology, with its capacity to generate almost any kind of environment, allows youngsters to feel less constrained about being cooped up in a ward. They can use VR to work off some frustration in a virtual landscape.

Having seen VR to be so effective in a care context, I can, as a retail technology specialist, also see how the technology could transform the operations of pharmacies on the high street or in doctors’ surgeries. This could involve a session in a consulting room or discrete part of the premises, where the customer or patient uses a VR experience to reduce stress or agitation.

Yet it could also be deployed for training and practice in the administration of certain types of drug or the use of equipment and medical aids. This would be for both patients and pharmacy or practice staff, and a very much higher-quality experience than watching a video because of the deeply engaging 3D-vividness that the technology creates.

As the price of VR hardware falls and the software and the content it generates become ever more sophisticated, it seems inevitable that the technology will have a role to play in reducing stress and pain in care settings. Beyond this, the gain for those in healthcare will be in reduced medication bills and quite possibly, less staff-time in an era when the numbers of elderly and chronically-ill residents and patients are rapidly expanding. It seems that VR may be moving out of the fantasy world to become part of the solution to some of society’s most pressing problems.