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Virtual reality check

Virtual reality check

Researchers are working with local and national NHS trusts to develop virtual reality (VR) apps that support the training of new clinicians and the treatment of patients.

The apps enable medical students to see examples of real conditions in VR, providing a training experience that is closer to the real thing and independent of a supervisor.

Associate Professor Dr Andrew Wilson and his team have developed two apps; one is for ophthalmology training and the other is a VR game based around ‘mirror therapy’ which is used by occupational therapists in treating complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS).

CRPS is a debilitating condition that is defined by severe and long-lasting pain, which often endures long after the initial injury has healed. The pain can be managed with regular exercise, but patients often stop the treatment due to it being ineffective or hard to maintain.

A VR game developed by the BCU team encourages CRPS treatment in a simulated environment by making use of ‘mirror therapy’, which helps encourage the patient’s brain to visualise that their affected limb is functional and can be used.

It is hoped that this new virtual reality experience will provide more consistent and effective relief for people with CRPS, as well as being adapted to support rehabilitation exercises in a range of musculoskeletal medical conditions.

Dr Wilson, who specialises in meeting health-related problems with virtual and augmented reality solutions, said: “Effective healthcare relies on having well-trained doctors and allied healthcare staff as well as informed and empowered patients. Unfortunately this can be quite challenging in terms of having experienced clinical staff with sufficient time to pass on their expertise and also having patients adhere to their treatments outside of the clinical setting.

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“Over many years I have been working with our undergraduate computer games technology students and clinical staff in local NHS Trusts to develop clinical training simulations and rehabilitation games to help in these two problem areas.”

Working with clinicians and medical students from Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust, the VR ophthalmology app has been developed and tested by the people who are going to use the app to ensure that it’s fit for purpose.

The VR ophthalmology app has the potential to be further developed to include new scenarios, different conditions and any feedback from the user group. It is currently being adapted to teach trainee midwives how to perform eye examinations in new born infants.

Dr Wilson explained: “We are also working with academic and commercial partners across Europe to explore the use of virtual reality games to promote physical activity. Although VR is struggling to make an impact in the entertainment field, our interdisciplinary teams led by BCU are making innovative strides in using VR games in broader societal contexts." 

The VR ophthalmology app has had more than 1,000 downloads internationally, in areas as far afield as Alaska, South America and Indonesia. It is also being trialled by medical students at the University of Birmingham.

The CRPS virtual reality game has received initial feedback from clinicians and is awaiting project funding.

Andrea Quadling, Senior Occupational Therapist at Sandwell General Hospital, was struck by the potential of the app: “The concept of using virtual reality to treat complex pain conditions was exciting, appealing and showed a lot of potential. This software has the potential to be helpful in offering additional treatment options for people who suffer from CRPS.”

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