Virtual reality games to improve diagnosis and treatment

From developing new treatments to training the doctors of the future, virtual reality (VR) has a multitude of applications in medicine and healthcare. According to Grand View Research, the VR and augmented reality industry will be worth 5.1 billion dollars by 2025. Researchers from Birmingham City University are working with local and national NHS trusts to develop VR tools that support the training of new clinicians and the treatment of patients.

vr for medicine

The challenge – modernising optometry training

Traditional ways of training medical students to perform diagnostic eye examinations come with a series of drawbacks. Often, an experienced clinician only has limited time to spend with students, meaning the latter have to practice on one another. When looking at their peer’s healthy eye, they won’t find the abnormalities they might encounter with future patients, resulting in difficulties when it comes to understanding what pathologies to look for and the correct way of performing the procedures. This can lead to the under-utilisation of an important diagnostic procedure when they enter into clinical practice.

With the VR app developed by Associate Professor Dr Andrew Wilson and his team at Birmingham City University, medical students can see examples of real conditions in virtual reality, providing a training experience closer to the real thing in a way that can be done independently of an available supervisor.

The challenge – making rehabilitation fun

Complex regional pain syndrome (CPRS) is a debilitating condition that affects approximately 16,000 people in the UK. It’s defined by severe and long-lasting pain, which often endures long after the initial injury has healed. The pain can be managed with regular mobility exercises but patients often stop the treatment due to it being ineffective or hard to maintain. A VR game developed by the team at Birmingham City University 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 actually be used.

The game requires the player to throw coloured balls into matching squares. This simple game premise is designed to be played with friends and family in order to encourage the patient to continue with their treatment well after the patient’s initial diagnosis. It is hoped that this new virtual reality experience will provide more consistent and effective relief for CRPS sufferers as well as it being adapted to support rehabilitation exercises in a range of musculoskeletal medical conditions.

The delivery

Working with clinicians and medical students from Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust, the VR ophthalmology app has both been developed and tested by the people who were actually going to use the app in order to ensure that the tool is fit for purpose. Due to its design the app has the potential to be further developed to include new scenarios, different conditions and any feedback from the user group. The app is currently being adapted to help trainee midwives learn how to perform eye examinations in new born infants.

The CRPS virtual reality game has been tested by clinicians and healthy control groups in order to perfect the game from both a treatment and playability point of view. Enjoyment is a key requirement for the game to increase the engagement of the patients, and early research by Dr Wilson and the team has shown that in healthy volunteers both regular and casual gamers enjoyed the experience.

Success to date

The VR ophthalmology app has had more than 1000 downloads internationally, in areas as diverse as Alaska, South America and Indonesia. It’s also being trialled by medical students at the University of Birmingham, who are providing feedback to Dr Wilson and the team. In an initial assessment, medical students rated the app highly in the criteria of usefulness and ease of use.

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 tool:

“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 very helpful in offering additional treatment options for people who suffer from CRPS.”

Looking to the future

The future of these two virtual reality health tools is one of further refining and testing, with the aim of being utilised by health services such as the NHS. Dr Wilson specialises in meeting health-related problems with virtual and augmented reality solutions. If you’re in the health sector and have a problem to solve that could benefit from virtual reality, fill out our enquiry form.

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Andrew Wilson

Associate Professor

Andrew has many years of experience working in the digital health sector developing and evaluating many different types of software from clinical decision and information systems, educational and training websites, serious games and more recently virtual and augmented reality solutions. He is a member of both the faculty’s socio-technical and data analytics and AI research groups. He actively collaborates with National Health Service Trusts, academic institutes and commercial organisations both nationally and internationally on projects relating to the use and adoption of technology to help solve complex problems in medicine as well as health and well being. He has published extensively in this field and produced a range computer programmes that are being used in these settings.

Working in the following areas:

Virtual Reality