Health IT

What does Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus mean for virtual reality in medicine?

Telemedicine pioneer Dr. Jay Sanders is pretty jazzed about Facebook’s move to acquire virtual reality company, Oculus, for $2 billion. Why? It could lead to telemedicine becoming more widely adopted. The conference call about the deal prompted this key quote from Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg:

Telemedicine pioneer Dr. Jay Sanders, the chief medical officer of Remain Home Solutions, is pretty jazzed about Facebook’s move to acquire virtual reality company, Oculus, for $2 billion. Why? It could lead to telemedicine becoming more widely adopted. The conference call about the deal prompted this key quote from Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg:

“After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home.”

Just as smartphones changed our concept of what mobile phones can do, telemedicine innovations have the potential to redefine how we view our interactions with physicians and between healthcare professionals.

Putting on goggles isn’t the first thing I associate with telemedicine, but Sanders takes a broader perspective. After all, he helped develop the precursor to telemedicine in the area referred to as telepathology. He said in a phone interview that although virtual reality is not new [to healthcare], “when someone like Mark Zuckerberg embraces it, it will get inserted into the marketplace a lot quicker.”

An admitted Trekkie, Sanders says the difference between science fiction and science is time.  He views virtual reality as something of a contemporary, real-life version of the Holodeck from the Star Trek series, and sees many applications for telemedicine, which includes virtual reality in medicine. At the top of the list is helping patients “to live or see their disease.”

Sanders said virtual reality offers a great way to improve adherence because the stress of going to the doctor means patients are less likely to retain key information they need to better understand their condition along with physicians’ instructions. By using virtual reality in the comfort of their own homes, patients can get a better understanding of why they need to take their medication, even if they feel well.

Sanders led the initiative to introduce telemedicine in Georgia in 1993. He worked with the Medical College of Georgia and Georgia Tech to develop the first home telehealth application in the U.S. His team used a standard television as a way to communicate between the physician and the patient at home.

“The patient, depending on what the technology costs, will drive the marketability of these devices,” Sanders said. “Doctors could program what patients need.”

Oculus Rift in particular has been used in behavioral health with veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq to reduce symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. This form of treatment is described as Graded Exposure Therapy and involves helping patients confront their fears by exposing them to simulated stress-inducing events in controlled environments and training them to develop coping skills.

Another potential application for VR is in physical therapy to help patients get over the phantom pain they experience when they lose a limb.

Sanders added that modeling and surgical simulation has been widely adopted by medical schools. The driving force has been the shift in national curriculum requirements from the American College of Surgeons and the Association of Surgical Education. Using a simulator means students can do many more surgical procedures until they do them perfectly as opposed to a handful of times using animals, and it’s a less expensive option long-term. It’s the equivalent of a student having a B in surgery compared with proof they have done the procedure numerous times successfully. Keeping with the medical education theme, virtual reality also has the ability to expand access to academic leaders to share insights from case studies.

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