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Can virtual reality help the opioid addiction crisis?

Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the US, ahead of car accidents and suicide. A new report from AHRQ shows hospital admissions related to overdoses from heroin and other opioids rose 64 percent in the US between 2005 and 2014. Three out of four Americans who are addicted to heroin were introduced to opioids through prescription drugs, and people of all ages, state, and income all are affected. While many states are taking steps to treat and prevent opioid abuse, no one solution exists. This problem has challenged health care organizations to manage the staggering costs.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the opioid crisis, one startup is hoping to play a role in its decline. AppliedVR is building a library of virtual reality (VR) content for alleviating pain and anxiety before, during, and after medical treatment. To date, the company has created three different VR pain applications and one for managing anxiety. It also uses external content. Patients can access the apps through VR headsets that are being used in hospitals, physician offices, and clinics for procedures including blood draws, epidurals, and pain management after operations.

Currently AppliedVR is working with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to conduct studies. One early study had 60 patients with a range of medical conditions use the VR software to play a game. The game is simple and its purpose is to mesmerize the patient. Results show that within 20 minutes of playing, the game reduced patients’ pain by 24 percent on average, moving the pain scale score from 5.5 to 4 (on a 10 point scale). Researchers noted this was a similar reduction to what narcotics could produce. The next step is a controlled trial in a larger group of patients.

Analysis: In health care, VR supports clinician training, for example in surgery simulation. Virtual reality has the potential to be a disruptive technology in health care, with wider applications and uses. Recent marketing of lower-cost virtual reality systems for consumers (mainly for gaming) should mean better access. Past studies have shown positive impact in patients being treated for alcohol addiction and behaviors to improve wellness, such as weight management and smoking cessation.

Individuals with chronic pain are higher risk for dependency on pain medications. Innovative strategies are needed from many different health care stakeholders. While targeting the opioid crisis will likely require coordination among them, hospitals are on the front lines of patient care. Implementing evidence-based VR interventions for pain management is one interesting strategy. That said, innovators in the field will likely need to demonstrate clinical effectiveness through rigorous clinical trials.

Sources:
US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, news release, Dec. 15, 2016
Mark Price, “Collaboration at every level: Solving the country’s opioid crisis,” Deloitte Health Care Current, May 31, 2016

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Author bio

Doug leads Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Life Sciences and Health Care practice. With 24 years of experience, he works closely with multiple top health care organizations on major clinical and enterprise transformation efforts and on large-scale technology implementation projects. Doug has extensive experience in comprehensive quality and patient safety transformations, turnaround and performance improvement in academic medical centers as well as organization/workflow redesign and technology enablement. He has served as the lead on a number of enterprise transformation initiatives with some of Deloitte’s most largest and most complex clients.