When COVID-19 evolved into a pandemic this March, Susan Persky, Head of Immersive Simulation Program at the National Human Genome Research Institute was forced to shut the behavioral laboratory she led and suspend all ongoing experimental trials. Now, as many parts of the World prepare for winter and anxiously anticipating possible surges in the number of infection, the global research community is looking for safe alternatives to resume their work and Persky believes virtual reality (VR) is particularly promising.

Use of VR in different facets of medicine has laid the groundwork

She wrote VR does not have a prominent presence in medical research but training via VR simulation has been used extensively. Early on, retired medical professionals or those with expertise in a different medical specialties were retrained using VR simulations to overcome the shortage of frontline staff and attend to the exponentially increasing number of COVID-19 patients coming to the hospitals. VR has also been used to manage pain and discomfort during child birth as well as in exposure therapies when patients were virtually presented with the things they fear and gradually working on eliminating certain phobias.

Presky cited a randomized controlled trial which distributed VR equipment to participants’ homes to assess the impact of interventions like balance training on Parkinson’s disease patients and mixed realities anatomy lessons conducted by Case Western Reserve University for their first-year medical students during lockdown. Presky wrote all these had “ironed out many procedural details involved in conducting VR-based, distributed medical research”.

As the applications of VR and augmented reality (AR) have been relatively diverse. Presky feels this is an opportunity for fellow researchers “to leave the status quo behind and create more resilient and flexible ways of gathering evidence, testing our hypotheses and developing new products and technologies for better health”. She added while the use of VR in medical research itself sounds radical, in many, it is a continuation of present trends. For example, in the US, regulatory agency had responded quickly to the mass transition to telehealth at the wake of lockdown. Likewise, clinical trial regulators can also follow suit and have guidelines on how to move experiments away online, turning virtual clinical trials a reality.

A more resilient and flexible option with many potentials

Presky said VR medical research is not only a “backup option” when physical labs are shut as the idea itself bears multiple potentials. Participants are faced with many variability after they left the hospital or lab environment where bulk of the experiment is done. So, if a research requires participants to perform some tests at home, VR can reassure a more consistent environment across participants.

For example, providing a calming virtual environment for all participants when they are assessing their blood pressure. In research that requires physical assessment, VR can also assist in tracking user behavior and movement. Besides, Presky pointed out existing VR research had demonstrated the technology can be “a strong platform for social interaction and interpersonal connection”. Bonding with fellow researchers encourages more participants to come on board or keep the interests of those who are already involved, providing a “personal touch” that is challenging to sustain.

However, Presky advised the need for suitable protocols on safe use of VR headsets that are shared by several research participants to minimize risks of contamination. She also highlighted the importance to support participants if VR becomes a necessity in all eligible study populations. Moreover, there have been concerns around the identifiability of data collected via VR, so researchers have to beef up the way they safeguard sensitive information in virtual space. Thus, Presky urged fellow researchers who are interested in VR medical research to first consider building the necessary infrastructure.

Overall, Presky is confident that VR is a natural solution emerged during this unprecedented period of time. As medicine and healthcare are relatively more active in exploring areas where VR can shine as compared to other consumer space, Presky believes it will likely to stay even after COVID-19.

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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.