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Virtual Reality in Healthcare

Virtual reality (VR) is an industry which has undergone immense growth in recent years, and is projected to continue on this trajectory. VR is now increasingly ubiquitous in different areas of life, from entertainment and education to retail. In this context, VR is also making in-roads into healthcare, with important potential implications for consumers and legal practitioners.      

What is virtual reality?

VR refers to a simulated 3D environment that enables users to explore and interact with a virtual surrounding in a way that approximates reality. This commonly involves a person wearing a VR headset which picks up their movements and adjusts their view on the headset screen in real time. 

“Augmented Reality” (AR) is a similar but distinct technology, which involves overlaying visual, auditory or other sensory information onto the real world. A well-known example is “Pokemon Go”, an app which was hugely popular following its release in 2016, and which involves catching Pokémon characters who “appear” on users’ phone screens as they explore the real world.

Next on the horizon is technology which is referred to as “Mixed Reality”. This incorporates elements of VR and AR and enables users to interact with and manipulate both physical and virtual items and environments using next generation sensing and imaging technologies.

How is virtual reality used in healthcare?

VR technology is used in an incredible array of ways in healthcare, including in training and education, physical therapy, and mental health and psychological therapy. 

Training and Education

VR platforms have been used to provide immersive and hands-on training for surgeons and clinicians. A study at the University of California found that VR training improved surgeons’ overall performance by 230% compared with traditional training methods. VR platforms offer on demand, portable training, which can save time and money when contrasted with traditional practice with cadavers. In June 2023, clinicians at NHS Mid and South Essex started using VR tools to learn and practise advanced medical and emergency procedures in a safe, simulated environment.

VR has also been used to train medical students. In 2022, Imperial College London introduced VR training which simulates emergency situations, such as cardiac arrest or an asthma attack, and gives trainee medics multiple choice questions on how to proceed, creating branched scenarios which bring to life the consequences of their decisions and help to prepare them for practice.  Medical students at the University of East Anglia were provided with VR headsets in 2021 as part of a project which was accelerated during the pandemic to enable them to immerse themselves in anatomy, emergency medicine and examinations. Similarly, the University of Exeter has introduced VR x-ray rooms for diagnostic radiography students to practise techniques in a simulated environment.

Additionally, a study has shown that VR can be used effectively as a tool for empathy, as it allows medical students or doctors to experience age-related conditions such as macular degeneration and high frequency hearing loss from the patient’s perspective. Age Scotland has created a dementia VR experience that gives people the opportunity to explore a virtual residential home to gain an understanding of the daily challenges faced by people living with dementia.

Physical Therapy

Alongside training and education, VR can also be used in physical therapy to create interactive and immersive environments which enable people to regain mobility, strengthen muscles, and improve balance and coordination. Studies have shown that VR therapy is an effective treatment for the rehabilitation of children with Cerebral Palsy, and results in improved motor function. In this context, VR is effective as it is entertaining, motivating, and enables adaptations to the real world.

Additionally, a team of researchers and clinicians in Sheffield and Leeds are developing a VR platform to improve the physiotherapy of children living with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), a paediatric disease that causes muscles to deteriorate and break down. The project aims to develop fun and interactive VR play scenarios which help to distract children with DMD from the discomfort involved in performing repeated exercises. 

Mental Health and Psychological Therapy

Finally, VR has emerged as a powerful tool in psychological therapy. A national study conducted by nine NHS Trusts has trialled the use of VR to treat patients diagnosed with psychosis, finding that the biggest benefits were experienced by those with the most challenging psychological problems (such as severe agoraphobia). In parts of Northern England, VR treatment is available for young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who have specific anxieties or phobias. VR can also offer immersive relaxation experiences, reducing stress and promoting wellbeing through guided meditations, breathing exercises, and serene landscapes.

Future implications for legal practitioners

For legal practitioners, a number of considerations may arise in the future. VR therapies (or the cost of these) may form part of claims in medical negligence and personal injury actions, if they can be shown to benefit an individual. Additionally, legal practitioners may have to consider potential negligence in the use of VR platforms as part of a patient’s treatment. It is possible that injury may result from the use of VR equipment, and there may also be issues in respect of liability for defective VR technology.

At the moment, VR technologies are subject to existing legal and regulatory frameworks, for example in terms of intellectual property, data protection and privacy, content regulation, and consumer protection. However, innovations on this framework may be required as VR technologies become more widely available and potentially raise novel issues.

Our clinical negligence team here at Balfour+Manson LLP recently had the opportunity to try a VR headset and experience a surgical teaching programme, which gave invaluable insight into the medical world. We are looking forward to more training which enables us to develop our skills in dealing with injured clients and appreciating the challenges they face. A period of downtime on another astral plane was equally enjoyable during that particular training.

This will certainly be an industry to watch for both legal practitioners and consumers.