Tech Tuesday: VR Technology Can Help Patients to Better Understand Their Medical Conditions

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Patients diagnosed with tumors can better understand their condition using virtual reality, according to a study conducted at the University of Colorado Cancer Center.

Led by radiation oncologist Dr. Douglas E. Holt, MD, the study consisted of 43 patients all of whom were about three to 19 months into their cancer treatment. The patients, ranging from 11 to 95, all had tumors in different locations, including the central nervous system, gastrointestinal system and pelvis. 

Using virtual reality, otherwise known as VR, patients and their caretakers were able to get a 3D view of their own individual tumors with a headset for about five to seven minutes each session. The people involved were also given two hand controls so they could manage the third-person point of view they were being shown. With the controls, they were able to zoom in or zoom out, revolve the animation to see all sides and generally move around with no limits to get a good view of the tumor.

“Patients struggle to know what’s happening within their own bodies,” said Holt in conversation with health magazine OncologyLive. “They’re making decisions being somewhat or quite uninformed about what’s going on. VR [provides an] opportunity to help patients be engaged in their own disease process and on decisions of the future of their cancer [journey].”

With regular, 2D images of tumors, patients often don’t retain the information presented to them. According to previous studies, only 20% of the information presented to patients with the aid of 2D images was remembered with patients forgetting about 80% of it. Of the information maintained, 50% of it was incorrectly remembered. 

With VR, those involved in the study had a much more complete understanding of their diagnosis, including when it came to things like the size of the tumor and where it was. According to the conclusion of the study, out of a scale of 10 with 10 being having a complete understanding, the subjects reported a mean comprehension level of 9.2. Prior to the study, the subjects reported a mean comprehension level of 5.6. 

Results of the study also found that the subjects felt less anxiety and more contentment following their VR experience. Overall, the subjects felt that VR was the best tool with about 83.3% voting for it when it came time to choose which tool they taught them the most about their condition. 

VR is also being tested in other areas of medicine. Studies are being done by histology technicians to give patients a VR experience that shows them the deep anatomy of their tissues. Radio therapists are also conducting studies using VR headsets to show their patients where the radiation beams will go during treatment. 

“The next steps would be to do larger studies, in oncology and then outside of oncology, to really be able to evaluate some of the other tangible benefits of this to patients [beyond] education,” said Holt to OncologyLive. “The future for patient education in oncology and the rest of medicine is VR.”

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