Highlights from the Virtual Medicine Conference in Los Angeles
I was lucky enough to partake in the Virtual Medicine Conference 2019 in March. This is an amazing industry conference with some great speakers sharing their work and research in medical VR. This is a quick write up from my notes over the two days. I believe the videos of the talks are coming out in the coming days/weeks which I strongly recommend watching.
What was clear is VR is impacting healthcare today. Clinical research has backed up this claim. And the industry is maturing fast. It was interesting to see presentations and panel discussion talking about how as an industry we must now focus on implementation at scale. VR is an affordable option that can be incorporated into today’s clinical practices.
The Virtual Medicine Conference was kicked off by Dr. Brennan Spiegel from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He spoke about how the science of immersive therapeutics is revolutionising mind-body medicine. Brennan’s introduction was brilliant at setting up the state of play in VR today and was an excellent overview of how VR and other advances in technology can impact the whole.
This was followed by Professor Diane Gromala’s talk about how VR works in medicine by enabling self-awareness. Dr. Gromala is a founding director of the Chronic Pain Research Institute which investigates how technologies like virtual reality can be used in pain management. She emphasises that there needs to be an evidence-based approach to designing medical-use VR systems that includes patients, healthcare practitioners and other stakeholders.
Dr. Gromala spoke about how there are certain factors in VR that can trouble patients with chronic pain. This includes saturated colours and loud sound effects. She also described her three areas of interest which included:
- The Wind Down – this is hard because you are asking people to face the pain;
- The Build Up – an increase physical activity; and
- Empathy/Stigma – understanding what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes.
Taking a step back to look at some of the lessons learned was Dr. Adam Gazzaley. His talk was titled, The Promise of VR and the Brain: Lessons Learned from Neuroscience. Dr. Gazzaley is the Founder and Executive Director of Neuroscape, a translational neuroscience centre that combines technology and scientific research. He described creating closed loop systems with biofeedback and a game that helps ADHD. He posed an interesting question and that was does VR time in nature help relaxation?
This concluded with Sensync, a sensory immersion vessel. This new media and technology company specialises in creating multi-sensory experiences. They are currently working on a revolutionary system that brings together imagery, sounds, vibrations, and smells to create fully immersive content. Its sounds crazy, looking crazy and probably is crazy!
Next up was Mel Slater, a research professor at the University of Barcelona. Mel’s background in computer science which brought him to VR. He demonstrated his work using VR to create a digital self or to embody someone else. The experience of Mel’s work has been described as an ‘out of body experience’ that can have an extreme impact on both the mind and the body.
Mel showed an experiment about sexism where males in a group were harassing a woman. The subjects that experienced the harassment as the woman seemed to show more empathy a week later. A fascinating study that showed how VR can be used for good.
He also showed a VR Steve Jobs avatar that he embodied. Mel used the avatar to have a discussion with himself to decide what to show in his presentation. Confusing, yes - genius, 100%. I was lucky to play a version of the experience later in the day and if I was sceptical at the beginning this changed by the end. Discussing a problem, with myself, allowed me to delve into the problem quickly and you could see the therapeutic benefit easily.
Itai Danovitch, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was up next. Danovitch posed the question, “Is VR ready for prime time in psychiatry?” To fulfil Betteridge's law the answer seems to be no. This seems a bit harsh because the research suggests that in some areas it does work well, and it should be considered in a more holistic approach, not as a standalone.
Psychologist Skip Rizzo took the state to discuss his work with avatars to expand the reach of psychology. Rizzo’s work takes on psychological, cognitive, and motor functioning in both healthy and clinical populations. While his talk wasn’t primarily focused on VR, it was interesting to hear that people feel more comfortable sharing intimate conversations with avatars than with humans. This tied back to Mel’s work with avatars, embodying people within themselves and then allowing them to discuss a problem with themselves.
With such a sensational group of speakers in the morning, it was hard to believe that the afternoon could get better, but it did. Kate Donovan is an entrepreneur who has a passion for delivering solutions to improve the patient and family experience in medical settings. She spoke about her work at Boston Children’s hospital. She too wasn’t very focused on VR, but it was fascinating to hear how the Mightier App, a set of bioresponsive games that teach kids self regulation to help them thrive. Use of the app showed a 75% improvement over a 3 month period.
Next, Jeffrey I. Gold discussed the risk of VR dependency with kids. He talked about EVRLAND and its contribution to the success of mindfulness with children. He also mentioned the possible use of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy® (DBT®) within VR to tap into the healing power of the mind. Gold spoke about how VR can be used to help children be less afraid of shots and needles and how wards are seeing a better throughput of patients using VR.
Another impassioned speaker was Elissa Margolis, the SVP of Enterprise Social Responsibility at The Walt Disney Company. She spoke about Disney’s wonderful Corporate Social Responsibility program. From a VR perspective, they are working with Starlight foundation to help bring VR into children’s hospitals.
Several panels came next, the first discussed FDA approval. There was an emphasis on not being afraid of the FDA, as this is an important growth step for the VR industry. All morning we witnessed the power of VR, now the content needs to deliver against the promise. Well-designed content should have nothing to fear from the FDA. The discussion included a light-hearted debate about reimbursement which will be an upcoming hurdle that VR must clear in the coming year in the USA.
The day closed with Rafael Grossmann, a robotic surgeon who is interested in the power of innovative technology in healthcare. He showed a video of an operation taking place with a surgeon 3,000 miles away. This demonstrated the disruptive powers that AR and VR can have in medical education. Rafael discussed an operation that was watched by over 5,000 students around the world. With the difficulty in accessing medical education in many parts of the world, this could be a game changer.