It seems like virtual reality is everywhere in the 21st century. What exactly is virtual reality? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary website, virtual reality is an artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli (such as sights and sounds) provided by a computer and in which one's actions partially determine what happens in the environment.
Before I retired I observed the use of virtual reality for training, with the use of virtual reality to train law enforcement officers in simulations of shooting situations. So it occurred to me that virtual reality might have a role in training medical personnel to perform procedures to treat heart and other medical conditions. Perhaps the technology could even give medical personnel a glimpse of what it feels like to have the particular condition they are treating.
I started to do some research to see how virtual reality might be used to treat heart conditions, and to simulate the daily physical environment that a heart failure patient exists in. The website for Heart Insight magazine, which is part of the American Heart Association, has a Winter 2017 article entitled “How Virtual Reality is Changing Cardiovascular Care”. The article recognized how virtual reality has revolutionized the treatment of heart disease and stroke, and predicted that within the next few years, every medical center will have virtual reality in some respect.
Here is one example cited in the article. “Pediatric cardiolgoists at Stanford are using a VR tool called the Stanford Virtual Heart to help explain complicated heart problems to students and families of children undergoing surgery. Users strap on a VR headset, grab a remote control and teleport inside the heart’s chambers and vessels, said Axelrod, who is also the lead medical advisor and a shareholder at Lighthaus Inc., which created the Stanford Virtual Heart.”
It sounded like something out of the Jetson’s cartoon that I watched in the 1960s. Or better yet, like the plot for Fantastic Voyage, a 1969 movie where a submarine with a small crew is shrunken to microscopic size an injected into the bloodstream of an injured scientist. At the time, the plot seemed too far-fetched, and the film was probably the most noteworthy because the cast included emerging sex symbol Raquel Welch. But today with the benefit of advanced technology, the imagination may be the only limitation on what medical science can accomplish to treat patients.
The treatment possibilities extend beyond what your medical team can do for you. The article says:
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are studying whether VR can better prepare bystanders to perform CPR in a hectic urban setting. Unwitting participants are given virtual reality headsets and hand devices and suddenly have to deal with a cardiac arrest victim amid a backdrop of wailing sirens and hysterical bystanders. “Do they call 911? Do they ask for an AED? Do they perform CPR? We’re hoping to not just train people with skills, but to emotionally and mentally prepare them to step up and respond when a real cardiac arrest occurs,” said Leary, who is also founder of ImmERge Labs, a startup company based on her VR research in emergency preparedness.”
The NBC News website has an article from August 22, 2017 entitled “3 Ways Virtual Reality is Transforming Medical Care”. The article reminds us that medical science has been using technology to create 3D images of internal organs since the 1990s. The difference is that today images are much more realistic and faster to create, for example an MRI turns a scan into a high resolution image in less than a minute versus probably a week in the 1990s.
Technology also helps doctors prepare for surgeries much more efficiently. For example 3D visualizations provide a better idea of what types of devices and approaches would lead to a successful procedure to fix an aneurysm or a blocked artery. Great - if I ever need a valve fixed or a heart transplant, there may be tools that can be used in advance to plan for every eventuality in the surgery.
The Medical Futurist website has an article from June 21, 2016 entitled 5 Ways Medical Virtual Reality is Already Changing Health Care”. One section of the article that appealed to me was the one on using virtual reality to ease the stress of chronic patients. Having been plagued by anxiety for most of my life, but especially during this heart failure phase, I really liked this idea.
I really like the fact that we have begun to use virtual reality to train medical personnel to perform procedures, or to train bystanders how to act in an emergency, or to help patients deal with anxiety and stress of their illnesses. But it was one of the later sections in the Medical Futurist article that really caught my attention. It was about using virtual reality to help medical providers experience life as an elderly patient. The Embodied Labs creation called "We Are Alfred" uses VR technology to show young medical students what ageing means. They can be the hypothetical Alfred for 7 minutes, and experience living as a 74 year-old man with audio-visual impairments.
Why do I like this idea? I think we can do our jobs better if we have walked in the shoes of those we serve. As a supervisory lawyer, my priority was for my staff to training courses and embed with the clients on occasions so we could experience the issues they encountered on a first hand basis. Lawyers often are accused of giving an ivory tower answer, meaning that they give an answer that looks good in a book but does not relate to the real world. My goal as an attorney was to make sure that even my advice was seriously considered by the client. When my lawyers and I trained or embedded with the client, we were demonstrating that we wanted to see the issues in their environment so we could help craft better solutions for them.
There have been occasions in the past when I was treated by medical personnel who did not listen to me and did not ask questions to determine how their treatments might impact my life. Happily, this has not been the case with my current health care providers. But I do know that sometimes it is hard for me to articulate to them what heart failure feels like, and how it impacts my life. Sure, they know that the common symptoms of heart failure (and many heart conditions) are shortness of breath, fatigue, etc. But would it perhaps help them to know what this actually feels like? So the article that mentioned We Are Alfred, demonstrates that the medical profession is sensitive to knowing what the patient feels like, and is using innovative ways to demonstrate that to the rising generation of medical caregivers.
Some may go so far as to wonder if this could also help people with chronic illnesses let their friends and family to actually experience what it feels like? I remembered a commercial a year or so ago sponsored by a drug manufacturer about a virtual reality representation of what it felt like to have a migraine. The patient’s mother was able to experience what it felt like to have a migraine headache. It made her much more aware of the hell her daughter was experiencing. It made her better able to help her daughter adapt and cope with the symptoms.
Having been met by blank stares when I attempt to describe what it really feels like to have a heart that is working at a diminished capacity, this seemed like a Godsend. Maybe someone could develop a simulation to let those who care about us and even for us would know what it feels like. Again, it would not be a “see I told you it was really this bad” presentation. Rather it would be a way to articulate something that chronic illness patients find hard to put into words but that is real and frustrating. And it would be a way to help others learn how they can help you. Because sometimes I think the hard part of being associated with a chronic illness patient is that you want to help but you don’t know how because you don’t know what the person is feeling.
Of course, each patient is different and may not see the benefit of this. It was Excedrin that came up with the virtual reality simulation of what it is like to suffer from migraine headaches. Some patients expressed frustration over this, and advised that they just want better drugs, not a virtual reality simulation. I understand that feeling because cutting-edge heart drugs have become a critical portion of my treatment plan. But I also see the value in helping others help us.
The bottom line is that I don’t know what a simulation for each chronic illness would look like, or how one would develop it. But I firmly believe that when we know how the other person feels and thinks and reacts that we can better learn to live together and to help each other live longer and better lives. So I’ll welcome any efforts to use virtual reality, in addition to medication and treatment procedures, to benefit in any way, chronic illness patients.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.