Virtual reality gives doctors, patients 3D look at hearts

Published: Nov. 23, 2018 at 5:58 PM EST
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A new kind of virtual reality is being described as revolutionary by experts. However, this time the technology isn’t focused on video games, but the human heart.

A doctor at Stanford has teamed up with the tech gurus in Silicon Valley to create a virtual heart. The aim is to not just tell but show patients’ families what is happening inside the body.

Like most kids, Bailey Cox is in constant motion, from one adventure to the next. So much so that few would ever guess that she suffers from a severe heart condition.

“Bailey prenatally was diagnosed with a heart condition,” said Adam Cox, Bailey's dad.

“We found out she had a heart defect in utero at a 3D ultrasound," said Joanne Masuda-Cox, Bailey's mom. "So, Bailey was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome.”

“The whole left side of the heart, the part of the heart that does the main pumping of the blood out to the body does not develop normally,” Dr. David Axelrod explained.

So far, Bailey has had four open-heart surgeries. It’s been a roller coaster of emotions for her parents.

“We had no idea about the intricacies of the heart,” Adam Cox said.

As a result, the Cox’s received a crash course from Axelrod, Bailey's cardiologist.

“Everything was drawn on a whiteboard or piece of paper to explain it,” Adam Cox said.

That is until Axelrod devised a way to let patients step into their own heart.

“The Stanford virtual heart is a virtual reality experience that patients’ families can use to understand both the normal heart and also congenital heart disease,” he said.

Using a headset and handheld remote controls.

“We were able to see what the surgeries do," Joanne Masuda-Cox said. "What’s repaired and how the heart will actually function.”

“I saw my heart, my first surgery and my second surgery,” Bailey said.

“My head’s still spinning over it, really,” Adam Cox said.

“Parents that look at it and immediately understand the three-dimensional aspect of the heart,” Axelrod said.

Axelrod predicts in the next few years, every hospital in the U.S. will be using virtual reality in some way. Software for the virtual heart is currently being shared with 22 different hospitals.

In addition to patients, the technology is also being used to train medical students about the 3D aspects of the heart.



REPORT #2581

BACKGROUND: Virtual reality, sometimes also called “immersive reality,” has been associated with the gaming industry for quite a long period of time and helps players to fully immerse into an exciting computer-generated world. But today, an emerging technology is about to change this popular notion. Virtual reality is taking on new markets. Along with virtual trainings for doctors that reduce the hours of observation trainings and raise their effectiveness, virtual reality solutions can be used by patients to treat many problems. With a virtual reality headset on, patients learn to cope with their fears, like fear of flying, heights, crowds, or even spiders. Public speaking training programs in virtual reality that help someone overcome stage fright are also very effective. Today, these programs are used in professional institutions, but research hopes to see self-treatment virtual reality applications soon that can be used with mobile devices and most popular virtual reality headsets for these health issues.


VIRTUAL REALITY TREATMENT: While we are still in the early stages of the digital reality revolution, virtual reality is already proving itself as a life-saving and cost-reducing tool for traditional healthcare providers. Pain reduction is an effective example of virtual reality’s cost-effective approach to patient care. A recent study of patients with back pain, shoulder pain, abdominal pain, and even post-surgical wound pain showed a 24% reduction in pain using virtual reality visualizations. Less pain led to a decrease in length of stay, thereby significantly reducing hospital bills. Visual scenes such as a wintery snow world environment to distract burn patients from the pain of having their wound dressings changed made a world of difference. With America in the middle of an opioid crisis, these non-narcotic uses of virtual reality pain management could be applied both in the hospital and at home. Taking virtual reality one step further, surgeons at several teaching hospitals are now experimenting with it in the operating room. Instead of spending hours hunched over microscopes while performing neurosurgery or retinal microsurgery, doctors can use virtual reality headsets to receive more visual information with added comfort.


CONTINUING ADVANCES: Cedars-Sinai has treated more than 2,500 patients with virtual-reality distraction for pain in a hospital setting since 2016. “Virtual reality is part of our culture now, so it’s not as alien of a technology as it once was. I think people look at it as an opportunity to deliver better patient care,” said Jeffrey I. Gold, Director of the Pediatric Pain Management Clinic at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, which began using virtual reality in 2004. “Maybe VR can complement a lower dose of pain medication or will eliminate the need for medicine altogether for some patients, which would be optimal.” Researchers began to explore virtual reality as a therapy for pain in the late 1990s, but the expensive and bulky equipment prevented it from gaining popularity. Today’s VR systems are more affordable, lightweight, smaller and comfortable. Many use a smartphone for the display and hardware, which can cut costs. This wave of new and improved devices has sparked a renewed interest in VR distraction therapy. “We’re interested in understanding how we can use different technologies to improve the patient experience in ways that don’t require more drugs, and VR is one of them,” said Brennan Spiegel, director of health services research at Cedars-Sinai.