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Virtual Reality’s New Healthcare Applications

Computer scientists and healthcare providers in Boston are exploring how virtual reality can improve medical treatment methods. VR gives doctors the ability to analyze injuries, medical students the opportunity to learn hands on medical procedures, and patients a method to quicken their recovery in new and novel ways.

On Tuesday, May 30, the nonprofit accelerator MassChallenge hosted its Intelligent Healthcare meet up, an event showcasing some of Boston’s newest healthcare innovations using virtual reality. Among its attendees was Dr. Philippe Cattin, a Swiss biomedical engineering professor from the University of Basel researching the medical applications of virtual reality at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Cattin is developing a virtual reality program that allows doctors and surgeons to explore 3D imaging of their patients’ anatomy. The visualization can be generated from any volumetric data set, including CAT scans and MRIs, meaning doctors are able to clearly see how different parts of the brain and body have been affected by injuries.

“After a car accident you can see the fractures, what’s impacted, which side to enter from, and what the best access point is,” Cattin explained.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Philippe Cattin

Wearing a virtual reality headset, people can walk around the visualization of the patient’s skull to view it from different angles. Step forward, and the program simulates stepping inside the skull to see specific components of the brain, including blood vessels.

The images are generated using volume rendering technology. As the viewer looks around, the program represents different values in data taken from CAT scans and MRIs with different colors. In other words, a high value in a CAT scan would be colored white, while a negative value would be transparent. The system is unique for its speed, as it needs at least 180 images per second to run in a virtual reality environment.

The virtual reality program will allow surgeons to plan out how they will approach surgery, preparing them before the first incision.

Dr. Albert Kwon and engineer Julien Bouvier of Augmentx are exploring a very different application for virtual reality. They want to accelerate the patient recovery process by engaging patients in virtual reality programs that encourage physical and mental activity.

Augmentx is exploring a variety of therapeutic applications. For example, one of their programs focuses on mirror therapy using a VR headset, which allows patients to visualize the movement of paralyzed limbs by mirroring how they move the other limb. Mirror therapy has been proven to accelerate recovery in stroke patients who have lost control of their limbs. When the part of the brain responsible for controlling a limb is damaged, visualizing that limb’s movement can reactivate that region. Mirror therapy can also help amputees recover from phantom limb pain.

Augmentx is also leveraging virtual reality games to encourage patients to become more active. Physical activity can be critical to a fast recovery, and inactive patients sometimes struggle.

At Boston Children’s Hospital, Dr. Kwon met a young man in his late teens who was nearly immobile, and experiencing an acute worsening of his chronic pain. “You just cannot get him to stand up,” nurses complained to Kwon. He decided to try the virtual reality program out on the patient, and to everyone’s surprise the man was soon up and moving around, engaged in games on the headset.

From training medical students in surgical procedures and helping doctors visualize their patients’ injuries, to engaging recovering patients mentally and physically, virtual reality will soon revolutionize the ways doctors and patients interact.

Bryce Fricklas

Bryce Fricklas

    Bryce Fricklas is a journalist from Boulder, Colorado. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal (2013 – 2015) and Guinea (2016), where he focused on community health. His interests include culture, music, nature conservancy, and public health. He is an MA candidate in international relations and international communication at Boston University.

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