Since it was first introduced, virtual reality has been often viewed as a novelty, limited to the world of science fiction, video games, and mobile apps. At American International College, however, the technology’s potential as a tool for better health and caregiving is being realized.
In the fall of 2018, Patrick Carley, PT, DHA, MS, a professor of physical therapy, began working with VRHealth, a cutting-edge medical technology company, to discover the practical applications of virtual and augmented reality in therapeutic and rehabilitative care. Without a doubt, he is excited about the possibilities and by getting in on the ground floor, he believes AIC can be a world leader in the next dramatic shift in healthcare.
Carley is no stranger to new technologies. Noting an already changing landscape in the healthcare industry, he has been an advocate for the exploration of corresponding equipment and practices. Previously, he and his students have studied and trained with wearable technologies which assist medical professionals in assessing and measuring patients’ needs and progress with measurable data, and he has been encouraged to explore expanding possibilities by a former student, Christopher Peterson PT, DPT, director of telehealth at Hartford Hospital.
The technology involved is also becoming much more affordable, according to Carley, creating better accessibility for patients and healthcare professionals alike.
“That’s why this convergence of wearable technologies, virtual reality, and telehealth is all merging together to maximize contemporary healthcare in the community setting,” Carley said. “I would like to have physical therapy and occupational therapy students explore this and maybe be leaders in looking at ways of taking this convergence to the next level. We’re actually preparing our students to be therapists not just for today, but for five or 10 years from now.”
PAVING THE WAY
“To my knowledge, we are the only company using VR as a certified product. We are a world leader,” VRHealth founder and CEO Eran Orr said.
With offices in Boston, Massachusetts; Hartford, Connecticut; Tel Aviv, Israel; and plans to expand into the United Kingdom and Australia, VRHealth creates and develops interactive programs utilizing virtual reality platforms that provide immersive experiences for patients, while providing healthcare professionals with quantifiable analytics and data to gauge a patient’s status and improvement.
Because virtual reality equipment can be used almost anywhere, it can greatly benefit patients with mobility limitations or lack of access to reliable transportation, Carley noted. Therapy could be administered at home by a medical professional or conducted independently with the results monitored remotely. Additionally, being fully immersive with many programs incorporating games and entertainment, virtual reality can make therapy less daunting.
“If you make therapy fun, if you make it non-threatening, and people are able to see their progress, more people would do it. From an exercise perspective, the person will feel like they’re right in the gym when they’re in their kitchen and they’re doing their exercises,” Carley said, utilizing a game that involves popping balloons at a carnival as an example. “Not only does the game keep score, it actually measures if you’re getting better. The balloons might start at shoulder level and the next time, it might just be a little higher, or it’s more over to the side, but it is modified by the therapist, always aiming to maximize their functional motion.”
VR BECOMES REALITY
It was after Carley delivered a faculty presentation on wearable technology attended by Director of Academic Computing Benjamin Mojica that the concept of using virtual reality to train health sciences students headed toward reality. Mojica, who had experience with technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and immersive 360-degree video, came to Dr. Carley after the presentation with an idea. At a recent technology summit in Boston, he had come across VRHealth and suggested opening a dialogue with the company about how their products could be implemented by AIC’s health sciences departments.
“After seeing the markets they were aiming toward, I came up with the idea that this would be perfect for education, and we have a school where that’s a big piece of where they’re going,” Mojica said. “When I approached them, that was the question I had for them—Have you considered using your product in academics?—and their initial answer was no, but they were open to it.”
Mojica also said the quality of the programming, the singular focus on healthcare, and the fact VRHealth is registered with the Food and Drug Administration were all contributing factors in the decision to move forward.
“I’ve been involved in VR in academics for a while and there are a lot of products that are either a little too gimmicky or they don’t really have the legs to really be a product that can be used in a clinical setting or an educational setting. Most products out there tend to be focused on games,” he said. “And by registering with the FDA, they already did most of the heavy lifting in terms of getting out there and being a real clinical product.”
THIS IS THE FUTURE
The current uses of products like VRHealth in medicine are just the tip of the iceberg, according to Orr.
“The use of VR, or augmented reality technology, is going to see a huge increase in the near future. I predict that in the next five years, you will see VR headsets and equipment in every rehab center,” he said. “And we’re just at the beginning. Every time I talk with physicians, they have 10 to 20 new ideas on how we could use this technology. I think we are just scratching the surface of how it can be used in the future.”
Carley is now in the process of integrating students and fellow educators into the discussion of how to best leverage the technology for educational purposes. He conducted a demonstration with his physical therapy orientation class to discuss new ways to use the tool for objective clinical measures and visualizing patient specific exercise programs. He was also part of a large technology task force comprising physical therapy and occupational therapy faculty to discuss three potential research projects to explore strategies for teaching and using virtual reality in therapeutic interventions.
“This is the future,” he said. “This is the way things are going. That’s why I want to extend that vision for AIC’s students.”
-By Chris Maza