Immersive experiences could help educate patients, cut down on video call fatigue

A panel at BIO Digital dives into where VR, AR and other immersive technologies make sense for healthcare.
By Laura Lovett
02:51 pm

The future of digital health could be a move from 2-D remote care to immersive 3-D experiences, according panelist at BIO Digital. 

“When it comes to immersive technologies, we need to think about the whole range of technologies … from augmented reality to virtual reality. That is the first thing that comes to mind, but it really is anything that is spatial computing – meaning that it is located in a space, not constricted in a screen in front of you, but you walk around this digital content,” Mar Gonzalez-Franco, a Microsoft researcher, said during the panel.

Over the last few months, offices have emptied and the working-from-home lifestyle has surged as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. This has given rise to the adoption of video-conferencing platforms and, in the medical community, telehealth. However, that digital lifestyle can also cause a lot of strain. 

“A few of the changes we were going to see in the next 20 years we are seeing in months,” Gonzalez-Franco said. “We are working from home, we’re seeing exponential growth of tech for communications. There is the gap in these technologies that are not immersive and make you very tired at the end of the day.”

But Gonzalez-Franco pitches immersive reality as a way to curb this fatigue especially in healthcare, noting it’s a different experience for users. 

“When you are in a virtual system that is not the case. It gives you a strong presence of illusion and plausibility illusion, the illusion that you are there and the things that are happening are real, which means the other people are also there represented by avatars, and that can help bridge the gap of this solitary confinement … This is important for many reasons. One it can bring all these patients closer to their loved ones, even during a hard situation, but it also can help clinicians assist someone without having to go there and expose themselves.”

Today provider organizations are implementing immersive technologies as a way to help educate both patients and providers. 

“When I was introduced to immersive medicine I was very curious to see if this was a platform that we can not only educate our patients about medical information, but to empathize with them while also explaining the nuances of their treatment option and their legal rights to a clinical trial,” Dr. Frank Tsai, an oncologist at Honor Health Research Institute in Scottsdale, said during the panel. 

His health system has teamed up with Microsoft to create an avatar tool used to aid patient education. Tasi said that by patients may be more relaxed in their home and have a different interaction with the healthcare system. 

 “When you are in the doctor’s clinic at a major cancer center it is a very scary place, and also a very powerful place. You are talking to some people who are in some way in a position of power,” he said. “Imagine you can embed this patient in a virtual environment where they can be their true selves… and ask the questions they want to ask, and perhaps we have the opportunity to not just better inform them, but to guide the behavior that can guide their health.”

An immersive virtual experience can also help contextualize different information, according to the panelist. For example, patients and clinicians have a lot of data streaming in from multiple platforms. 

“The idea that you have all this data now and can connect it from wearables and home devices, [there is] a risk you will only interact with the data,” Gonzalez-Franco said. “If you have spatial computing as the door to enter and interact, you can see the data in context. That is a way that people should be seeing VR."

While special technologies are already making their way into the clinical realm, there is still a long way to go – but tapping the next generation of researchers and clinicians might be the key. 

“There was a time when basic scientists would work in silos from clinicians, and you have to appreciate that that gap has created a high barrier to bring novel treatments into the clinics. Since that time there is this term called 'translation scientists for clinicians,' who can translate and do research that brings benchwork into a clinic. I believe, in the technology world, we need the translational technologists to bridge that gap,” Tsai said. “I think the key is to engage young clinicians at an early stage and find those that are passionate about medicine and technology.”






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