The early adoption of virtual reality (VR) in hospitals involved pain management, when Hunter Hoffman, a researcher from University of Washington built a $90,000 unit which immersed burn patients in a 3D video game called SnowWorld when their wounds were being cleaned. Patients claimed that the pain they have to endure was less severe and Hoffman believed VR is perfect for acute pain.

Somewhat 16 years later, Brennan Spiegel from Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles is also experimenting VR with his chronic pain patients, using a $800 kit making up of a headset and a mobile phone. In the clinical trial published last year, patients who were engaged in the VR Bear Blast game reported 25% less pain as compared to others who were watching a 2D relaxation video.

Cost-effectiveness of VR therapy & hospitals’ budget

This June, Brennan Spiegel and his colleagues released a new study which explored the cost-saving threshold of VR therapy for inpatient pain program. They defined cost-effectiveness as a reduction of opioid use, decrease in hospital length of stay and higher patient satisfaction.

Of all, decrease in hospital length of stay turned out to be the most crucial factor while there was not enough evidence for the other two. The average hospitalization cost-savings per patient for the VR program in pain management versus usual care was $5.39.

Other than that, as the paper pointed out, there was no other systematic study to suggest if introducing VR truly alleviate hospital spending. There were an all-time high of close to 800 digital health startups being funded last year.

Despite each of their promise to introduce fresh air into the industry, hospital budget and resources tend to divide along various departments. Whereas patients usually access the services of more than one particular department. Thus, innovating one department may not render enough support to show that patients are benefiting. To mend the diffusion, there is a need for a decentralized system.

Other possibilities and challenges in the hospitals

The VR industry has not been a stable one, it took off as an entertainment tool but followed closely with a setback. It’s coming back again recently but still stuck in the early adopter phase. Lack of content has also soared the price of certain VR systems. Such roller coaster ride kind of development has made VR questionable; if it can seamlessly fit into health establishments, which highly value safety and precision.

VR has an undeniable potential in rehabilitation and peripheral medicine but like drugs, any prolong exposure will yield side effects, and this may also limit the choice of certain patients. Perhaps it’s exactly all these hurdles that make the technology interesting and waiting for us to further explore.


Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.