How virtual reality is revolutionizing health care

irtual reality has come a long way. Twenty years ago, the technology cost tens of thousands of dollars and weighed 50 to 100 pounds. Today, you can find lightweight models for less than $100. Strapping on the headset allows the user to immerse themselves in a 360-degree environment that feels almost real

While much of the VR world is focused on entertainment and gaming, the technology is increasingly being applied to health care settings. In Spokane, the Northwest Counseling Center uses VR to help patients confront their phobias and practice mindfulness. Burn patients in hospitals across the country use a VR game set in a snowy paradise to help manage burn pain. And at Western State Hospital near Tacoma, new staff train with a VR module that puts them in the shoes of a patient and helps them understand what it’s like to experience a mental health crisis. VR worlds aren’t indistinguishable from reality, but they’re getting close.

MENTAL HEALTH

You’re called to the front of a large, nondescript conference room to give some sort of speech. The subject isn’t important; what matters is the audience. There are at least 50 of them — dressed in drab corporate attire and talking among themselves as you take the stage. You try to stammer out a few words, but they don’t seem very interested in what you have to say. You feel yourself getting anxious. Their murmurs get louder, and with a twinge of horror you realize they’re talking about you.

“They seem nervous,” says one audience member.

“I think it’s their first time,” whispers another.

Out of the corner of your eye, you see that people are starting to stand up and leave. Someone in the audience asks you a question but you’re too distracted to even think straight. The speech is a complete disaster.

Thankfully, none of this is real.

When you take off the VR goggles, you’re transported back to the office of Dr. Roger Yoder, founder of the Northwest Counseling Center in downtown Spokane. Yoder started incorporating VR into his practice shortly after opening in 2016. He now uses the technology to treat a variety of anxieties and phobias — including fear of public speaking.

By exposing patients to their phobias in a controlled, safe environment, Yoder is able to help them work to gradually regulate their response and get to a point where they can safely partake in the activity in real life.

The VR training doesn’t normally start with the intensity of a speech in front of a hostile audience. Yoder will start patients on an easy simulation and then gradually work up the intensity while continuously monitoring their heart rate. The goal is to get to a point where they can confront the source of anxiety or trauma without triggering their flight or fight response.

“You can’t just take a person with a fear of heights on the first day and throw them on top of the tallest building,” Yoder says. “You’re not helping them at all there. You have to work up to it.”

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