Nov 17, 2022 - Health

How virtual reality is solving some real health care problems

Illustration of a doctor wearing a virtual reality headset.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Virtual reality is becoming a real-world health tool for everything from chronic pain and behavioral health problems on Earth to medical training for astronauts in space.

What's happening: Like the entire VR industry, health care's version has made significant strides in recent years.

  • Gone are the cheesy graphics and poor user experience of even just a few years ago, companies told Axios at the HLTH Conference in Las Vegas this week.
  • "When people say, 'Yeah, it's been many years since they've tried VR,' it's like, 'No, you haven't tried VR,'" said Luke Farkas, director of brand and marketing at BehaVR, a Kentucky-based company focused on behavioral health.

The big picture: VR in health care is a fast-growing market that's projected to expand from about $2.7 billion in 2021 to $9.8 billion by 2027.

  • It's been a game-changer because of the unique way the experience stimulates the brain, said Aaron Gani, CEO of BehaVR.
  • "Everything we do on a flat screen — smartphone, laptop, big screen TV, IMAX theater, doesn't matter — it's all sort of the same in that it's not happening to you. You're looking at it," Gani said.
  • But VR is immersive, he said: "We can deliberately get you aroused and excited — think exposure therapy. Or it's really easy to get you calmed down."

Between the lines: A growing number of virtual reality companies have taken aim at real-world health issues and are working with major health systems.

  • Last year, AppliedVR received the FDA's approval to market its virtual reality system for chronic pain reduction.
  • Another company, XRHealth, offers virtual reality clinics where patients can receive remote care.
  • LevelEx, tapped by NASA to help train astronauts handle medical issues on deep space missions, has expanded the use of its platform to create training modules for doctors here on earth.
  • BehaVR this week announced the launch of a mental wellness program based on cognitive behavioral therapy in a collaboration with Sumitomo Pharma, for which it plans to seek FDA clearance as a digital therapeutic. Part of the goal is to help alleviate the shortage of qualified mental health professionals, said CEO Aaron Gani.

What they're saying: "We need force multipliers for clinicians to create efficiency, get people off waitlists, treat more patients faster. That's where digital therapeutics can shine," Gani said.

👀 The intrigue: During a demonstration on LevelEx's colonoscopy game — a training tool for docs that counts for continuing medical education credits — this reporter saw just how important it was to create "squishy" or "bloody" surroundings for a simulation of how to scope, snare and biopsy growths, with flashing graphics and other real-time feedback.

  • "It's fun. And the reason we add this is not just because it's cool. You're trying to trigger dopamine release in the brain because we want failure to be frustrating and we want success to be rewarding," CEO Sam Glassenberg told Axios.

Yes, but: Researchers note there still are limitations, including the cost, reduced face-to-face contact in education and rehabilitation settings and systems that can be difficult to learn and use.

  • There also can be side effects from prolonged use of the technology, such as motion sickness, eye strain and sensory and motor system problems.

The bottom line: There's been a lot of hype when it comes to virtual reality.

  • But in health care, companies are making a case that they've moved beyond the gimmicks into some pretty seriously interesting applications and are poised to become a massive market — particularly as the metaverse evolves.
Go deeper