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Exploring the Benefits of Virtual Reality to Improve the Clinical Experience and Reduce Costs

A Digitally Enabled Healthcare Story
September 16, 2022

Many organizations are leveraging digital technology in healthcare. That includes exploring the power of virtual reality (VR) —a computer-generated three-dimensional environment you can see with a special headset — to enhance the clinical experience by meeting people where they are most comfortable. These days you may find VR being used to remotely replicate an in-person appointment, manage pain, or help clinicians better understand what their patients experience from day to day. All of these efforts, and many others, are using digital technologies to enhance physical care settings and extending the delivery of care in innovative new directions.

VR also has real potential to be scaled more broadly, according to Brennan Spiegel, MD, MSHS, director of the Virtual Medicine Program and director of Health Services Research at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. Spiegel’s research suggests this may translate into cost savings.

Cedar-Sinai’s Virtual Reality Program

For close to a decade, Cedars-Sinai has been developing and implementing health information technology solutions (referred to as medical extended reality, or MXR) through its VR program. MXR integrates VR with augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) to transform the patient experience.

For instance, Cedars-Sinai runs a VR irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) clinic that provides access to state-of-the-art care from the comfort of home. Wearing a VR headset, people can “walk” through a virtual clinic, complete with “walls” and “exam rooms,” where they can learn more about their condition and how to treat it. They can also engage in brief cognitive behavior interventions and practice meditation while immersed in the VR experience.

“Digital health [and VR] allows us to care for people outside of the four walls of the clinic and hospital right in their homes and in the community, which is where they spend the majority of their time,” Spiegel stressed. “This creates a new dimension of immersive experience,” he said.

Reducing Pain and Gaining Empathy with VR

Cedars-Sinai is also testing VR strategies to manage lower back pain. Non-pharmaceutical approaches to back pain could help reduce the use of opioids for pain management. Through VR, people living with pain can participate in different relaxing experiences, such as swimming with dolphins or standing under a waterfall. Unlike simply watching a video or movie that shows these settings, VR allows the user to experience sensations as if they were actually taking part in the activity, Spiegel explained.

In addition, Cedars-Sinai uses VR to help clinicians gain empathy for what people or caregivers may experience. The clinicians view scenes using VR that can trigger an emotional response to what it feels like to live through different scenarios — from having dementia, to caring for someone with Parkinson’s disease, to being a survivor of interpersonal violence. This can improve the clinician’s personal connection with the people they see in the clinic and ultimately improve patient satisfaction.

Spiegel stressed that these are just a few of the many VR initiatives currently being implemented.

VR to Encourage Treatment Adherence in Young People

Boston Children’s Hospital’s Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator program recently worked with Toronto-based marketing agency Klick Health to conduct a research project exploring the potential of VR to better engage young people with chronic conditions in their own care and address the problem of treatment non-adherence among this population. As part of this initiative, they created a VR platform called Health Voyager to impart a deeper understanding of the needs and benefits of their treatment regimens. For example, children and adolescents receiving care for gastrointestinal (GI) diagnoses took 3-D animated tours of what is happening in their bodies to see what ails them — and how their prescribed treatments address the concerns.

The ability to tailor the VR experience in this way provides an approach to deliver precision education and enhance a person’s experience in the medical system. Such efforts can also improve treatment adherence by reducing any fear of or anxiety over the unknown.

Cost Savings Using VR Technology in Healthcare

While the benefits of these efforts seem clear on an anecdotal basis, published data are still limited. As a result, such services are not yet covered by most insurance companies. But the hope is that this could change in the future.

In an article published in NPJ Digital Medicine Spiegel and his colleagues make a solid case for why covering VR would ultimately be cost effective. They calculated that in return for investing in a VR headset (which retails for a few hundred dollars or less), as well as the initial time and expense to develop a platform and train clinicians on how to use it, health systems would save an average of $98.49 for every hospitalized person who uses VR to manage pain compared to their counterparts. The savings among the VR group primarily resulted from reduced length of hospital stays.

When you consider that hospitals treat thousands or more people every year, it’s easy to see how this investment can pay off on the broader scale. Reducing the length of time people are hospitalized might also help ease some the strain on healthcare facilities and workers and could improve patient outcomes by reducing the risk of hospital-acquired illnesses.

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