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Virtual reality heralds an exciting new treatment era

Over the past decade, virtual reality (VR) technology has emerged as a beneficial tool in healthcare and clinical medicine. The technology has become increasingly affordable, immersive, and flexible, enabling its use in a broad range of therapy areas such as pain management, surgical training, anatomical education, physical rehabilitation, and treatment of psychiatric disorders.

One evolving area of research has been the use of VR simulations in mental health therapy.

With one in four people in the world affected by mental or neurological disorders, VR-enabled therapy has been reported to have extraordinary benefits.

VR technology consists of a computer-generated environment that immerses the user in a virtual world.

The user’s perception of reality is facilitated by sensory stimuli in the form of head-mounted displays (HMDs), body-tracking sensors, and specialised interface devices which allow researchers to monitor a patient’s level of interaction. The tracking technology senses the user’s position/movement and feeds back that information to a computing system which then updates the sensory stimuli presented to the user.

In VR-enabled therapy, patients are provided with stimuli of difficult situations where they complete specially designed tasks tailored to treat specific disorders. Appropriate coaching is then provided based upon the theoretical understanding of that disorder.

Numerous studies highlighting the benefits of VR in mental health have been published, with results indicating that VR-enabled therapy is up to par or even better than face-to-face therapy.

Studies report that 20–30% of patients drop out of standard therapy treatments.

With VR-enabled therapy, patients are aware that the computer environment is not real, hence they are more willing to face the difficult situations presented.

Oxford VR, a company from the University of Oxford, has recently demonstrated that VR is a proven means of treating patients with clinically-diagnosed fear of heights. The treatment is now offered to patients in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.

Additionally, VR-enabled therapy comes with cost-benefit potentials as the time required of skilled therapists is significantly reduced. Treatment can therefore be delivered at a faster and larger scale. In the future, it may even be possible to eliminate the need for a mental health clinician’s input with treatment delivered by a virtual therapist.

The use of VR in mental health is relatively novel but promising. The low cost, flexibility, and highly interactive aspects provide a better experience for patients. The advancement of VR therefore presents an exciting era for mental health care.

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