The early use of virtual reality (VR) was centered mainly on entertainment like games and movies. This technology is gaining traction in medical care as universities and hospitals in Hong Kong increasingly adopt it for patients’ rehabilitation and medical professionals training.
Global Industry Analysts projected that the global market for VR in healthcare will reach US$3.8 billion by 2020. Asia Pacific is estimated to be the fastest growing market with CAGR of 23.2%, led by developing healthcare infrastructure and strong demand for innovative medical technologies.
As VR hardware and software are getting cheaper, a growing number of physicians, scientists and other medical practitioners use VR in diverse medical disciplines. They include rehabilitation, robotic and minimally invasive surgery simulation, and immersion therapy such as depression and phobia.
Pain relief therapy
To some physicians, VR immersion can be used as an adjunct to medical treatment to help patients reduce pain and distress associated with various medical procedures such as severe burns, cancer pain and chronic pain.
“VR is not just the distraction but the total immersion. We engineer the environment and take patients to another place where they can exert mental control. They become interactive with their avatars, and can leave their hopelessness and helplessness,” said Alex Cahana, senior vice president of digital strategies at TRT International US Ltd at the Healthtech Asia 2017 in Hong Kong last month. He has been a pain physician for over 25 years.
Cahana said that in clinical settings and experimental studies, patients immersed in VR experiences like VR games can reduce levels of pain or relieve distress.
TRT International was established by the traditional Chinese medicine company Tong Ren Tang. Marrying technology such as VR, mobile and machine learning with traditional Chinese medicine, TRT International aims to improve the wellness of people.
“The future is a combination of high touch [Chinese medicine] and high tech,” he noted.
In Hong Kong, universities or medical practitioners have developed VR for different applications. Some of them started off as research projects in universities and were later commercialized in the business world.
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU)’s VR-based training software originated from a research project at the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences. The software is now licensed to a local rehabilitation services firm.
Named VRehab and Virtual Reality based Vocational Training System (VRVTS), these two non-immersive VR software simulate real-life scenarios such as supermarkets, bus stops and boutiques. They help people with cognitive impairments to boost their daily living and working skills respectively.
In a virtual supermarket of VRehab, patients learn the skills of grocery shopping and money management. In a boutique environment simulated by VRVTS, patients assume the role of a shopkeeper and learn sales techniques.
“VR provides a safe and comfortable environment for patients such as those suffering from dementia to improve cognitive functions like attention, memory and problem solving skills,” said the department’s professor David Man. “It can be customized to meet patients’ progress in training, increasing their motivation and confidence to carry on rehabilitation.”