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Get real: How virtual reality is transforming international health care

Just as we now struggle to remember life before mobile phones and the internet — a mere 25 or so years since they first became widely available to the public — it’s likely that one day we’ll wonder how we ever managed without virtual and augmented technologies in medical training, diagnosis, treatment and surgery.

Indeed, this game-changing technology has started making a very real impression.

The role of virtual reality

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are already making their mark in the health care industry. Harnessed for their ability to deliver patients a more convenient, modern, streamlined and effective health care service, as well as assisting surgeons, doctors and nurses in their work — diagnosis, treatment, surgery and long-term condition management — the scope of VR and AR is as wide as the human imagination can take it.

For employers, offering VR solutions for employees relocating abroad shows support and understanding for workplace wellness and global health concerns. Employees on global assignments may find access to quality health care difficult, particularly in certain countries and regions. For example, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) sending aid workers to Sierra Leone — rated by the World Health Organization as having the worst performing health system — will be aware of the poor-quality health care their employees can be presented with. The ability to access high quality health services via technology such as VR offers a lifeline to employees in the field. It also shows corporate social responsibility on the part of the employer, and can even contribute to business continuity and sustainability.

No matter the industry or sector, expats can also struggle with their mental health as a result of moving to a new culture and community. In these cases, access to virtual therapy can be reassuring for employers, who know the needs of their staff are being met, and to employees, who benefit from quality care from across the globe. Care through VR and AR offers employees a route to sustained mental and physical wellness before, during and after their international work assignment.

Diagnosis

Where diagnosis is concerned, wearable devices and mobile or internet-based apps can already offer individuals a method of monitoring their health levels. They can even create a direct line of communication with a doctor — Aetna’s vHealth app, for example, provides a video consultation service with in-house doctors trained in ‘telemedicine’.

Virtual health care is therefore especially useful for individuals who find it difficult or impossible to access a clinic or health care surgery for an initial face-to-face consultation. This could be due to mobility or transport issues, lack of time, or because they are situated in a remote location or a country where access to quality primary health care is a challenge.

With the fast pace of modern life and the increasing globalisation of companies and families, there is a growing demand for instant engagement with health care professionals — who may not even be in the same country as the patient. Indeed, video-link, avatar and ‘intelligent virtual agent’ (IVA) technology is set to provide medical professionals with a whole new method of managing patients and improving treatment — at the same time as reducing costs.

Home-based virtual assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Assistant, could also play a key part in revolutionising primary health care. Imagine being able to access virtual nursing by asking an artificial intelligence for advice on a skin rash? Or perhaps even ‘showing’ it the rash in a VR environment? This could significantly reduce the number of unnecessary appointments at the doctor’s office and make health care quicker and more convenient for individuals with minor ailments who might only need visit a chemist. Equally, it could ensure that those with more serious conditions are prioritised at doctor’s clinics, surgeries and hospitals.

Treatment

In addition to the potential for prescriptions and medications being made available and sent directly to patients following a video consultation — without the need for them to attend a surgery, hospital or chemist at all — virtual technology can offer a host of improvements to the quality of medical treatment and care.

In the case of the AccuVein handheld scanner, AR is already making the blood-taking process significantly less painful and unpleasant. It provides doctors and nurses with a digital map of patients’ vascular systems, helping them identify the best place to insert the needle.

Meanwhile, smart glasses have the power to improve the accuracy, speed and success of operations. When worn by the surgeon, they can place endoscopic or fluoroscopic camera images and the patient’s vital statistics in his or her line of sight, rather than on monitors dotted around the operating room that distract attention away from this precision task. They can also save doctors from admin work by allowing ‘remote scribes’ to watch patient consultations and take down medical notes.

In fact, technology is advancing at such a pace that doctors and surgeons are starting to be able to use mixed reality and holographic technology to view and interact with 3D X-ray, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), ultrasound and other medical scan imagery, thanks to Microsoft’s HoloLens headsets. The images can even be viewed ‘laid over’ the patient’s body before and/or during surgery using AR, providing a more precise ‘map’ for the surgeon to follow when carrying out an operation.

Patients’ well-being is also catered to by VR and AR, allowing them to temporarily escape their hospital surroundings and enter virtual environments. Using smart glasses or goggles, they can explore exhilarating landscapes or swim with dolphins for welcome relief or distraction from anxiety, pain or boredom. Other technology allows patients (and especially small children) to enjoy home comforts from their hospital beds, through live streaming of a 360-degree camera set up in their home, school, or at an event.

Counsellors and therapists, too, are increasingly turning to communication apps such as Skype to provide video therapy sessions. The long-distance setup provides access to this vital service for those who have no transport; are located far away from their chosen therapist; or are unable to leave their house due to illness, injury or mental health problems. But it also, in many cases, allows them to open up far more than they would have done in a face-to-face session. The safe environment, distance and use of a computer or smartphone as an intermediary device removes many of the anxieties and vulnerabilities that can sometimes be felt in a therapy room.

Aftercare

Once treated, patients could one day be sent away with all kinds of medical VR technology and virtual health care assistance to help in their recovery and rehabilitation – as well as to keep doctors informed of their progress and condition. In fact, many patients are already being remotely monitored through home-based ‘telehealth’ equipment and devices that measure vitals such as blood pressure. The data is sent directly to a health professional via a landline, mobile phone or wireless device.

AR and VR are also particularly helpful when it comes to patient education, capable of demonstrating to them the realities of certain illnesses, conditions and disabilities through a multi-sensory, virtual experience. Such apps and VR games have, among many other functions, been developed to:

It isn’t just patients who can benefit from virtual technology — it can educate their carers too, by showing them what life is like for a patient with, say, macular degeneration or restricted mobility. Likewise, doctors and nurses can be given a new understanding of how it feels to be elderly, or to be recovering from a heart attack, so they can help and care for their patients more effectively.

Medical training

Adding an interactive element to medical students’ training using AR and VR technology is already revolutionising the health care industry. It can bring learning to life by, for example, allowing students to view and explore 3D holograms of the human anatomy through VR headsets (as with HoloLens). It can even enable them to watch a real-time video feed of an operation taking place anywhere in the world, sometimes overlaid with notes and tutorials, via their mobile devices.

Experienced professionals can also learn from this virtual health care environment. There are now many accounts of surgeons utilising 3D technology to practise complex procedures in advance of operating on their patients. In 2017, for instance, surgeons in New York used the technology before separating 13-month-old twin boys who were joined at the head, sharing up to two inches of brain tissue. The same is true of the surgical team in Minnesota that successfully parted twin girls attached at the lower chest with conjoined hearts.

Virtual is therefore very much a reality for the medical industry, providing practitioners with effective tools to boost their efficiency, knowledge, understanding and empathy, while transforming the patient experience.

This article has explored the near limitless possibilities for the future of health care throughout the world. As such, employers sending staff on international assignments shouldn’t make the mistake of over overlooking the option of VR and AR health services.

Learn more about essential considerations for relocating abroad in our helpful guide to pre-trip planning.

Further reading:

If you’re looking to better understand iPMI market trends or for international health and wellness benefit solutions, contact one of our expert sales consultants for more information.

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