Review of VR studies shows promise for the technology

By Jonah Comstock
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A team of researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles has published a review of randomized trials studying the use of virtual reality in inpatient settings. The research team included Dr. Brennan Spiegel, who heads up a team that uses virtual reality for pain reduction at Cedars-Sinai.

The paper, published in “Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience” was originally intended to be a meta-analysis, but researchers found the studies were too diverse to support it. Instead, they conducted a review of, ultimately, 11 studies on VR over the past decade.

“Overall, a majority of studies from the past decade found VR to be efficacious, easy to use, safe, and contributing to high patient satisfaction,” researchers concluded. “Studies varied in terms of quality, but we observed no relationship between study quality and key findings. In most cases, patients considered the VR experience to be fun, immersive, and enjoyable, and few patients were lost to attrition due to side effects.”

The studies fell into three categories: those that used VR as a distraction for pain reduction, those that used VR to improve body image in patients with eating disorders, and those that used VR for cognitive and motor rehab. 

Pain distraction was by far the most studied of the three, comprising the majority of the literature, and was also one of the most promising areas. Five out of seven studies reported a positive effect, including both studies that measured pain subjectively based on patient reporting and studies that observed the activation of pain centers in the brain.

Eating disorder studies used VR to alter subjects’ self-perception through use of avatars and used virtual environments to help train patients to make better lifestyle decisions.

“Although improvements in body satisfaction were reported in all study conditions, only patients in the VR condition reported improved body image perceptions at five-week follow-up,” researchers wrote of one VR study. “After one year, VR patients were significantly better (44.4 percent) at improving or maintaining weight loss than patients in the control group (10.4 percent).”

The final category, rehab, had mixed results between the two studies in the analysis. The authors suggest that this area in particular needs further study.

Spiegel has told MobiHealthNews in the past that his team plans to publish some data from trials done at Cedars-Sinai. This review lays the ground work for additional publication, from Cedars-Sinai and others. But because of the increasingly low cost of VR systems and the positive outcome of many studies, it’s pretty likely this research will continue.

“The use of VR in medical fields is relatively novel but also promising,” researchers write. “It is highly interactive, flexible, tailored to the individual, and applicable to people varying in age, sex, and medical disorders. As technology improves and costs are reduced, VR will undoubtedly shape the future of healthcare.”