What role for virtual reality in healthcare, and specifically, health libraries?

Most of us have probably heard about virtual reality (VR) through the lens of gaming.


By dronepicr (Gamescom Playstation VR Playseat) [CC BY 2.0(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
We’ve all seen the pictures of people wearing the headsets, totally immersed in a different world, shooting at zombies and aliens and anything else gamers get up to.
VR certainly has a more serious side. Take this next image for instance.
This is a researcher with the European Space Agency (ESA) exploring using VR for controlling planetary rovers and satellites in space. He can practice over and over again in a safe and secure environment before the real thing.
ESA [CC BY-SA 3.0-igo (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0-igo)], via Wikimedia Commons

As the above examples show, VR can be used to create simulated environments that exactly replicate real life environments to enable testing of methods and user interaction and learning. VR has a growing role in health medicine, whether in surgery, rehabilitation or education.

Take a couple of recent examples at Torbay Hospital. An intensive care patient broke his neck a few years ago, leaving him paralysed and unable to walk or grip with his hands. He was being slowly rehabilitated and was recently hooked up to Virtual Wembury, which enables the patient to virtually cycle through the village of Wembury in South Devon. The patient experiences changing scenery that speeds up as he goes faster, providing a more interactive experience. The patient’s time and distance is recorded, so when he next gets on the virtual bike he can compete against his previous day’s attempt. In human terms, this meant the patient was pushing himself to go further each time, whilst enjoying beautiful scenery and improving his mental wellbeing.

Torbay Hospital is also using VR to improve doctors and nurses’ understanding of the patient’s perspective. For example, a patient journey moving from an ambulance, into a resuscitation bay, and then into theatre is filmed in 3D. Doctors and nurses can study this to discuss the environment, the patient’s state of mind, staff actions and interactions, and how these can affect the patient. The advantage of 3D is that the medical professional can stop the video at any point, look around through 360 degrees and see what the patient sees. This has resulted in doctors having more empathy with their patients.

King’s College Hospital in London has created an app that helps take the fear out of MRI scans for children. In 3D virtual reality, it allows the child to experience the journey from arriving at reception to having the actual scan, along with the loud noises they would hear, from a safe location.

All of the above are fabulous innovations, but what do they have to do with health libraries?

The obvious one is offering VR as an additional learning method within the library. We all provide access to print and electronic books and journals, and often to anatomy software, but all of these are in 2D. What VR can offer is a more immersive experience in 3D. Think about trying to learn what the heart looks like in 2D, or as a static demonstration model. Wouldn’t it be better for students to be able to peel back layers of a body to get to the heart, to be able to walk around it and see it from different angles, see how it interacts with other component parts of the body that are fully labelled, and if they want, pull apart the heart to see what it looks like inside?

As the VR in hospitals examples highlight above, VR can significantly aid patient wellbeing, so why not for staff wellbeing as well? Many health libraries now offer a health and wellbeing section for their employees. VR can help staff escape from their workplace into a different world – whether it is immersing yourself in a garden and hearing the birds singing and water trickling in the pond to being outside on the moors and hearing the wind whistling around you, to moving around in a forest and examining all the local flora and fauna.

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2 thoughts on “What role for virtual reality in healthcare, and specifically, health libraries?

  1. Literally just out of a meeting with Computer Services who are working me up a quote. We reckon that a headset already comes with multiple standard apps, that in itself is equivalent to a couple of years subscription to an A&P package. Not only would it make A&P more engaging, but potentially can be developed for local simulation and potentially strategic planning. Thought of the study angle and patient journey aspects but not the health & wellbeing one.

    We borrowed sets from University of Chester for NHS 70th (Education past & future). It was popular with patients/public who wanted to understand operations and what was wrong a bit better. We thought it is useful for the library to have as lending equipment as well as study opportunity to maximise the value of the kit across the Trust.

    We are also discussing creating an AI bot app which patients can download as an app and will answer patient queries. The library would support the patient enquiry analysis and the training of the AI. The idea is base on something which is available at Alderhey. Interested in views and opinions on either of these projects we are considering. susan.smith@chester.ac.uk

  2. If anyone is interested in 3D anatomy resources, we are using a 3D Anatomy app which offers almost everything Richard describes – other than the ability to walk round it (although there is an augmented reality option which we are still playing with so maybe…) Feel free to get in touch sarah.lewis23@nhs.net

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