Emerging Technologies

Healthcare Virtual Reality: The Social App

Using virtual reality at home

As an industrial engineer who went to medical school, I’ve always been obsessed with workflow. If I’m Twitter-famous, it’s for my incessant tweeting about workflow. But, starting about a year ago when I got a virtual reality (VR) headset, I’ve been almost as obsessed with VR! My interest crosses three categories:

  • What can it do directly for patients and clinicians
  • What it can do for healthcare workflow (obviously!)
  • How we, in healthcare, can use it to connect and be present for each other

The last one—social virtual reality—is, I am convinced, THE best application for virtual reality.

Watch Chuck Webster, MD, MSIE, MSIS, talk with HIMSS TV about social virtual reality.

How VR Makes a Difference for Patients and Clinicians

When I look at the stream of alerts I’ve set up to flag news about virtual reality, I find the most frequent use by patients is pain management and the most frequent use by clinicians is training. In a VR headset, interacting with a sophisticated applications—even if you “know” you’re not actually flying, lazing by the ocean, or fighting zombies (who keep sneaking up behind you!), it doesn’t matter. You will be distracted from your everyday concerns, including chronic pain.

If you are a surgeon preparing for a clinical procedure, such as directing a trauma team or operating a robot surgeon, you can do test runs again and again—making mistakes and learning from that experience, without harming an actual patient.

How VR Can Improve Workflow

Given my industrial engineering obsession with healthcare workflow, I’m naturally interested in how virtual reality might be used to improve workflow. More than 30 years ago in graduate school, long before I’d heard of virtual or augmented reality, I wrote a paper about a science fiction electronic health record of the distant future. Instead of clicking on a button, an intern simply looked at the patient’s hand to see an X-ray. In my imagined scenario, an intern asks, “Where are my patients?” and then looks around, up and down, to view a 3D model of the hospital, superimposed on the real hospital, seeing on distant floors the glowing icons of patients. Technically this was an example of augmented reality (AR), but VR and AR exist on a spectrum, often called Extended Reality, or XR, and use many of the same technologies.

With this technology, entire hospitals, along with artificially intelligent avatars, can be created. You can be a patient, experiencing patient flow. Or be an administrator, making changes to the simulated hospital and experiencing the result; improve the hospital and experience the result. Repeat. Then build the hospital. Sound like science fiction? There’s a startup that will convert digital architectural specs into VR walk-throughs.

How VR Can Make Social Media Social

As wonderful as virtual reality is for patients, clinicians and healthcare workflow, to me the most fascinating use is as a new form of social media. I’ve hosted social VR events and when the event starts, you and your new friends put on the headsets and all of you are magically transported to a cool mountaintop meeting space, appearing to each other as cartoonish humans and robots.

In social VR, you and others, actually feel as if you are “present” together, chatting away about—in my case so far—behavioral health, telehealth and science fiction in healthcare, among other topics. Recently I even spent nine hours straight in social VR, listening to over a hundred attendees telling stories about how illness has affected them.

So, as compelling as the technology is for pain management, training, and simulating entire hospitals, VR for social purposes most excites me.

Why? Loneliness! It’s an underestimated public health epidemic. Some of people I’ve met in social VR are retired, disabled, or shut in for one reason or another (such as intense social anxiety), and they, to a person, view social VR as a balm and an antidote to otherwise feeling isolated from the world, family, and friends (see my post about my first event for poignant accounts).

RELATED: In the Coronavirus Age, Loneliness and Social Isolation are Pressing Concerns for Healthcare

When I hosted a nine-hour event in social VR, over 100 people came and went. I’d resigned myself, ahead of time, to spending some time alone. But that never happened. Each time we go down to just one other person besides me, they stayed, sometimes in companionable silence, until others appeared to keep me company. They were there to emotionally support me, to prevent me from being lonely. It made me think of holding a patient’s hand, waiting for family to arrive.

Let me close with a supporting quote about the psychology of virtual reality.

People often ask me what the ‘killer app’ of VR will be….It’s not going to be trips to space, or courtside seats at sporting events, VR films, cool videogames, or underwater whale-watching….Virtual reality is going to become must-have technology when you can simply talk and interact with other people in a virtual space in a way that feels utterly, unspectacularly normal. – Jeremy Bailenson

I have hundreds of mobile apps I’ve only used once or twice, but the only app I use over and over is a social VR app. Every time I use Twitter, it’s a different app in the sense that I am interacting with a different set of friends about a different subject. The exact same thing is true in social VR.

In other words, in my not-so-humble opinion, healthcare VR’s most promising app is social VR. And the best example and evidence of that, for me at least so far, was standing silently next to someone in social VR, knowing that even though we’d just met, we felt a bond, without saying a single word. Try that on any other social media platform!

The views and opinions expressed in this blog or by commenters are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HIMSS or its affiliates.

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Originally published June 20, 2018; updated April 1, 2020