Despite its enormous promise, VR healthcare has hit something of a bottleneck. It is partly a reault of technological constraints: VR devices have long been too expensive and cumbersome for widespread use, and virtual environments have been difficult to create and implement in clinical settings. Human factors also play a role: Patients raised on “The Lawnmower Man” are understandably wary of taking the plunge into virtual environments, and physicians trained using real-world tools often worry that VR is little more than a gimmick. That hesistancy has left VR medicine in the doldrums: Full of proven potential, but unable to attract enough attention to break through the technological and human barriers to widespread clinical use.
Now, however, that could finally be changing. The COVID-19 crisis has forced both doctors and patients to get comfortable with digital medicine. Telehealth visits rose 154% during the March pandemic peak, sparking claims that the sector now represents a quarter-trillion dollar opportunity for medtech innovators. And while those telehealth visits involved video conferencing, not VR headsets, the normalization of digital healthcare will go a long way toward driving uptake of new technologies. In the post-COVID era, the idea of strapping on a VR headset to give or receive treatment doesn’t seem quite as alien as it once did.
Simultaneously, we’re seeing an increase in the use of VR-adjacent technologies in the healthcare space. New conversational AI tools and digital avatars are now bringing a more modest—but still transformative—version of VR medicine into the mainstream. Instead of building virtual cities for dementia patients, we’re building virtual nursing assistants that can chat with patients, remotely monitor compliance with treatment protocols, and rapidly triage them to the appropriate human caregivers, or AI tools that let patients book appointments, get information, or schedule vaccinations without having to wait to speak with a human administrator.
A Digital Stepping Stone
Such technologies might sound a far cry from VR healthcare, but they are an important stepping stone. As we build and use these new digital tools and virtual assistants, we are creating and recreating new norms and new ways of experiencing healthcare. Just as human caregivers need to learn effective bedside manners, we are now learning to create technologies that can interact with patients in a humane and empathetic way, while seamlessly augmenting the abilities of stressed and overburdened healthcare providers.
Clearly, there is a significant distance between a chatbot used for booking healthcare appointments and a fully immersive virtual environment used for treating complex medical conditions. But through building and refining such tools, we are incrementally solving the technical and human challenges that have for decades held back VR healthcare.
Virtual reality is powerful—and medically useful—because it lets you imagine yourself in novel contexts, and experience the world in different ways. To bring VR into the medical mainstream requires breaking down the barriers, both psychological and technological, that pull users out of virtual environments and foreground the artificiality of the digital experience. Building conversational tools such as chatbots and digital avatars that can interact seamlessly with users is a key step toward that, because it allows us to both normalize virtual interactions, and to develop frictionless digital experiences that clinicians can leverage in new and powerful ways.
As patients get more comfortable with virtual tools, and clinicians gain understanding of the efficiencies and clinical benefits they bring, we will see greater demand for VR healthcare technologies. By leveraging the learnings from conversational AI, and harnessing a new wave of investment and innovation in the telemedicine space, we will be able to rise to that challenge. Virtual reality healthcare is still very much a work in progress — but thanks to these breakthroughs, we are closer than ever before to realizing the dreams of the early VR healthcare visionaries.