The Future of VR in Healthcare: Q&A on Clinical and Patient Applications

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VR Healthcare

Experience has been driving consumer engagement for years. Companies employ their brands as tools to encourage interactions, whether it be purchasing, reviewing, sharing or co-creating. These brand experiences have become true differentiators that connect memorably with consumers. But could these encouraged interactions be taken a step further to impact consumer behavior in a more meaningful way?

Virtual reality as experience is a hot topic of late—particularly in health, a sector that continues to seep into all areas of our lives as technology improves and innovation flourishes. VR has a multitude of applications for health and healthcare, from the clinical to the consumer. And by 2020, the global market could be upwards of $3.8 billion. From robotic surgeries and procedure training to pain management and behavior modification, VR is poised to impact our care, our caretakers, and our overall health for the better. The question lies in how successful health brands will be in utilizing VR technology to change human behaviors. Could it impact adherence, improve prevention or even lead to a cure?

Innovation with VR to improve health outcomes will make a significant impact on our quality of life and overall healthcare costs. However, technological innovation alone won’t define a breakthrough brand; a company must incite behavior change through its innovation to make a game-changing impact.

Nicole Diamant discussed the future of VR in healthcare with Gareth Price, Technology Director of Ready Set Rocket, who has brought his technology expertise to different industries such as healthcare, fashion and finance; and Dominic Leung, Senior Director of Strategy for InterbrandHealth, who is responsible for leading and shaping strategies for global clients and progressing thought leadership efforts in health and wellness.

Nicole Diamant: What healthcare brands are currently utilizing virtual reality, and how are they doing so?

Gareth Price Ready Set Rocket RSR

Gareth Price: VR in healthcare is in its infancy. Most research is currently in the laboratory rather than in a healthcare business setting right now.

The healthcare industry is technologically forward-thinking but compared to consumer or tech worlds, there’s a much higher regulatory burden to adopting new technology. That is combined with a conservatism stemming from the potential bad outcome from a failure of healthcare technology (death) being far worse than that of a consumer electronics device (inconvenience). There’s a lot of interest in healthcare VR but not many concrete case studies for VR yet.

A handful of more innovative hospitals—Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, Miami Children’s Health System—are using virtual reality for instructional software on some procedures such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), nasal gastric tube insertion, Foley catheter insertion, intubation, starting an IV, wound care and the Heimlich maneuver.

Dominic Leung InterbrandHealthDominic Leung: I agree—we’re not seeing much in terms of practical development of VR in traditional healthcare. We’re seeing a lot of articles exploring it and people thinking about patent protection and filing. But we are far from commercializing technology that modifies health outcomes.

And from a brand perspective, we’re starting to see companies integrate VR into the way they build experiences with customers and health consumers. And, ultimately, this creates more authentic relationships and hopefully opens the door for changing health behaviors.

ND: How can VR in health impact consumer behaviors?

GP: As a highly visual medium, VR has been called “the empathy machine” due to its immersive nature allowing users to feel an experience emotionally in a way that less-intimate mediums cannot transmit.

DL: Yes, there’s definitely an impact on people. One of the more successful current uses of VR is looking not only at empathy but the implications it has on behavior economics. Many of the health challenges people face have to do with breaking down psychological barriers. Success is more than treatment. Diabetes is a big challenge in our society, and we’re seeing VR being employed in devices that act to change behavior by addressing the mental hurdles to adhering and adopting better health practices to help change our lifestyles.

Lifestyle has always been a challenge in diabetes—and now we’re seeing innovative technology that addresses it. Take, for example, the Wize Mirror, which checks your risk factors for cardiometabolic diseases and offers advice on improving your health. Or the Future Self Mirror, which takes things a step further by showing you what you will look like down the road if your health habits of today continue.

VR also has the potential to change the so-called infrastructure of healthcare. Right now, a lot of the infrastructure is set around brick and mortar. But the definition of the delivery of care is already starting to change. The healthcare eco-system is becoming more and more invisible.

GP: Precisely. With telesurgery and virtual reality diagnostic imaging, consumers will be able to receive advanced procedures faster, and in a location other than a hospital—for example, a robotic surgery tool that can be used at the scene of a car accident or in the home of someone too infirm to move.

ND: How do you anticipate health-related VR evolving in the future?

DL: It’s hard to predict what this technology can do in terms of reimagining the health ecosystem or thinking about therapies that previously did not exist. We don’t have enough evidence or technology to talk about how we would change the regulatory landscape to get these innovations approved or the infrastructure we would need to create to help mobilize them.

For something like VR to change our future we need to be more open and creative—and we need to foster it. We’re in a position to decide if we want it to be part of our future. For the short term, I think the focus will be on using VR to improve accuracy through what we currently do and enhancing the capabilities of the human being and behaviors—both as the care-giver and the patient.

GP: VR will see the biggest gains in training and virtual surgery rather than on the direct-to-consumer side. There are a few consumer-facing niches that virtual reality will revolutionize—post-traumatic stress disorder and phobia treatment—but the high cost of equipment and training in healthcare means that VR is well poised to have high impact in this area.

Currently medical students learn on cadavers, which are difficult to procure and do not react in the same way a live patient would. Virtual reality training allows procedures to be repeated and monitored in a way that increases their effectiveness. Retention for training of physical procedures is greatly increased—from 20% retention after a week to 80% retention.

The potential market is huge—up to $3.8 billion in 2020—so we anticipate growth in the sector as startups enter the space looking for profits, then a wave of consolidation as the technology matures and finds product market fit with consumers in the space.

ND: Are there any lessons that health brands can learn from consumer brands already using VR? Who’s leading the way?

GP: Virtual reality is a great marketing tool—it has a huge novelty impact factor and helps brands position themselves as cutting-edge and technologically advanced. On the consumer side, headset adoption is low and will remain low until costs come down and headsets work with smartphones—rather than high-powered PCs.

As part of a Happy Meal promotion, McDonald’s used Google Cardboard, a very low-cost headset that allows you to create a viewer for your smartphone. This could be a good way of providing take-home visualizations for consumers.

American Express created a virtual reality experience where users played tennis against Maria Sharapova for the US Open in 2015. This combination of celebrity endorsement and simulation creates a compelling and memorable experience for the consumer.

We’d recommend that health brands focus on creating experiences for consumers that highlight the values they wish to present: quality of service or technological advancement. The empathy that VR provides can also put patients into scenarios where they can experience the surgery they are about to go through or be exposed to phobias that will prepare them for difficult healthcare situations.

ND: Any other takeaways from what healthcare brands can learn from how consumer brands are using VR—and vice versa?

DL: Taking this a step further, healthcare brands can look at how consumer brands are using VR in the context of the overall customer journey. VR is a great tool for generating ways to engage with consumers, even when the brand is not top of mind or relevant. Making these subtle connections throughout the entire customer journey strengthens the brand experience, shifts behaviors and engenders new interactions.

On the flip side, consumer brands can also take a page from healthcare brands’ playbooks, specifically, how they use VR in high-end clinical settings. Here, VR plays a role not only for experiential reasons but to reinvent the category. We can look at recent studies around VR-based treatment for obesity and binge-eating disorders. This modification of body awareness is leading to a whole new approach to behavior change, called experiential cognitive therapy. It’s exciting to see how brands, regardless of category, will redefine our landscape.


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