Virtual reality is poised to change the way health care providers interact with patients

Published: Thursday, February 15, 2024 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, February 15, 2024 - 7:04am
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Typical advancements in the field of health care involve new surgery techniques or medications.

But virtual reality has been used in the medical field for several years, with studies pointing to its ability to improve surgeons' performance and the added benefit of training new surgeons without the risk of operating on a real patient.

VR in the medical field is receiving renewed interest since the launch of Apple's Vision Pro spatial computing headset on Feb. 2, and health care professionals have been challenged to innovate new ways to use the technology to help patients.

Dr. Frank Tsai at HonorHealth in Scottsdale is one such professional. Tsai is an oncologist and researcher at HonorHealth in Scottsdale, focusing on cancer research involving clinical trials.

Tsai says that in cancer treatment, doctors can have "passionate discussions" about the data from various scans.

"So I can imagine that possibility where that data, whether it's a CAT scan or MRI, converge in a virtual reality environment where everyone at the tumor board has a headset," he said, "So now the radiologist and the surgeons are looking at the anatomy from different angles, different perspectives to plan the surgery."

Tsai's research, however, is more focused on using virtual reality to meet with patients and provide more comfort to them.

"Research has shown that if clinical trials were offered in the patient's community, such as a church or a barber shop, there's a greater impact than having that conversation in a sterile cancer center at a shiny building," he said. Tsai said that by providing a virtual environment that seems more familiar to a patient, it enables them to have a better long-term memory of what was discussed during appointments.

He said the research came to the conclusion that the concept could be used to communicate more effectively with patients in a way that doctors normally wouldn't be able to, "because we all can't get out to the churches, to the barber shops."

Tsai's hope is that by providing a more comfortable environment through the use of VR, it will encourage groups of people that have historically been underrepresented in medical care to participate in clinical trials.

"If patients are not represented in these trials, then they don't get the full potential benefit of the potential treatments," he said.

For example, the American Medical Association published a study in 2022 that revealed blood-oxygen readings for people with darker skin tones are often incorrect and may contribute to the level of care received.

When asked if people have been receptive to VR in medical care, Tsai said that people have been interested, but question how exactly it can help them. In the past several years, VR has emerged as a way to help patients manage physical pain and to help with conditions such as PTSD and dementia.

Tsai remains optimistic about the future of VR and its role in medical care.

"I think these are very exciting times. I think the VR project is a classic example of how medical research in collaboration with technology experts can really accelerate our patient treatment and management," he said.

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