Reality Check: The Emerging Role of Virtual Reality in Healthcare

JAN 11

Recently, a TechCrunch article commented that “this VR cycle is dead”. That got us thinking about virtual reality (VR) and its potential applications in healthcare.  While consumers have been slow to adopt virtual reality (VR) in the living room, TripleTree and TT Capital Partners feel that VR will find a meaningful purpose and role in the healthcare industry. From behavioral health treatment services to advanced training programs, VR solves difficult problems through its immersive experience.

Nearly all of today’s tech giants are investing in proprietary VR hardware and software. Facebook’s $2.1B acquisition of Oculus Rift suggests the company doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of this technology. Two of the world’s largest smartphone makers, Google and Samsung, are investing in software and partnerships to turn their smartphones into pocket-size VR consoles. Facebook was in the headlines again when it dropped the price of its Oculus Rift package down under $400, a huge step for an industry that was criticized for being inaccessible only a year or two ago.  And even more recently, HTC and Facebook’s Oculus VR business unit introduced two new virtual reality headsets at the International Consumer Electronics Show.

Within the healthcare industry, we have watched VR make meaningful impacts in treatment settings, specifically when treating behavioral health conditions. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 1 in 5 Americans had a diagnosable mental disorder in 2015, which caused an estimated financial cost of $467 billion in the US alone. This massive opportunity has been a magnet for virtual reality applications as they capitalize on the ability recreate an immersive and believable experience for the user, beyond what traditional therapy services have been able to do.

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has seen the biggest breakthroughs for VR, an area that has seen a lot of visibility in the news with high profile cases from combat veterans as they reintegrate with civilian life. VR has become an integral part of some clinics Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. It provides the opportunity to expose patients to situations which trigger a response virtually, while in a safe and controlled environment. Bravemind, a program from the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, has been working with veterans since 2005 and can now be found at over 60 sites, including VA hospitals, military bases and university centers.
  • Helping children with Autism Spectrum Disorder has become a reality as VR has become more affordable. Floreo, a startup backed by venture capitalists and the National Institute of Health, leverages VR to provide safe, immersive, repeatable, and affordable social and communication therapy. Using VR, Floreo is able to provide therapy based on established techniques intended to help individuals with ASD build real world skills, while monitoring and tracking the child’s progress. In Floreo’s recent pilot, 10 out of the 12 participants showed improvements in key joint attention skills after completing the program. Though it is still in its infancy, the program has shown some very promising results.
  • Beyond these two examples, behavioral health providers have found applications across a wide range of counseling services, including: depression, anxiety, anger management, grief/loss, ADHD, sexual assault, and phobia management. CleVR and Virtually Better are two innovative companies utilizing VR to manage phobias and other anxiety related issues.

In addition to treating behavioral health conditions, VR has started to make inroads into advanced training applications. Western University of Health Sciences opened the J and K Virtual Reality Learning Center in 2015 to merge cutting edge technology with its existing curriculum. In mid-2017, the University of Nebraska Medical Center broke ground on a $118.9 million facility that will use virtual and augmented reality to educate its students starting in the fall of this year.

While we have seen VR start to get traction in the healthcare industry, the technology is still a relatively small player in a large industry.  From a pure dollars and cents perspective this makes sense, as video games, especially realistic VR versions, have long development cycles and are capital intensive. The monetization of an accurate and visually pleasing PTSD immersion module requires a different type of ROI when compared to the more traditional launch of the next franchise VR game.  Additionally, the evidence-based nature of the healthcare industry can create a “chicken and egg”’ dynamic as investors and providers look for existing proof points before getting behind a new company.

Despite these realities, we remain optimistic about the role of VR and the potential to overcome limitations of traditional health care methods to create innovative new treatments and capabilities. What do you think?  Does VR have an important role in the healthcare industry?

Ian Goodwin
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