Health & Wellness

Virtual Reality Comes to Medicine

By Lola Augustine Brown

Once nothing more than the stuff of science fiction movies, virtual reality (VR) technology is becoming more and more mainstream. VR headsets are being sold by everyone from Google, which offers a $20 cardboard headset you use with your smartphone, to companies offering ridiculously expensive full-body VR suits that allow you to feel virtual touch.
Now a number of Canadian hospitals, such as Edmonton’s Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, have virtual reality suites set up and are using them to help seniors recover from strokes and injuries, as well as to help treat depression, anxiety, dementia, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Courage in Motion (CIM) Centre at the Glenrose has a robotic platform with an adapted treadmill in front of a huge VR screen. Patients, including Canadian Armed Forces personnel, are able to control what happens on the screen by their movements and by shifts in their balance, creating an experience that takes them out of the real environment and allows them to interact with whatever is projected on the screen—whether that be a walk through a lush forest or a run down a mountain on skis.

Activities are presented as games, offering patients challenges. A driving simulator not only gives therapists information about patients’ motor and cognitive functioning but also helps patients relearn driving skills.

In Toronto, the University Health Network’s OpenLab innovation project includes X-Lab, an initiative that uses VR headsets to transport patients beyond “the confines of their hospital bed or medical condition, and have them sit by a peaceful lake, or stare up at a canopy of leaves” by “tricking the brain into believing it’s somewhere else.”
Although the technology is new, and it may take work to convince some people to wear a VR headset, the possibilities are exciting. For someone in a long-term care facility who can’t get out to do the things he or she once loved, VR could help recreate those experiences.

Photos: iStock/LagartoFilm.