Scientists adapt VR tech for use in remote medical consults

The innovation comes with emotion recognition software.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Representational image of a doctor using VR tech.jpg

University of Canterbury researchers have created a virtual reality (VR) headset that could be used by doctors to conduct medical assessments with patients who live in rural areas, have infectious diseases, or have mental health issues that could lead them to act violently toward others.

This is according to a press release published by the institution on Tuesday.

Inspiring trust through eye-contact

“The patient needs to feel trust in their clinician, so for them, the system is focused on relaying eye-contact and facial expressions that make them feel connected to the doctor despite being in a different physical location,” said project lead professor Rob Lindeman. “For the clinician, it can provide detailed physiological information that the patient might struggle to convey verbally during a remote assessment.”

Compared to conventional video or phone consultations, the new technology will give patients a more involved and engaging experience. It can result in an immersive environment where patients can feel like they are physically present with their healthcare provider despite being at a distance.  This may improve the flow of information between patients and physicians.

Furthermore, the headsets can be used to visualize complex medical data, such as medical imaging scans or 3D models of organs. This makes it easier for medical professionals to describe diseases and available treatments. 

VR can be combined with wearable technology and sensors to remotely monitor patients' health and collect information for accurate diagnosis and customized treatments. VR is also used for therapies in mental health, including phobia exposure therapy and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can be used to induce relaxation, which can be of great help for people experiencing emotional distress.

Emotion recognition software

Finally, the innovation is equipped with emotion recognition software to assess a patient’s psychological health.

"Because the participants are wearing the headset, we weren't able to capture all their facial expressions with a camera, so we had to find an alternative to solve this issue," said PhD student Dilshani Kumarapeli.

"We used a facial capture device and trained a neural network to identify various key emotions. These emotions were then relayed to the clinician, to help in managing the diagnosis session. I really enjoyed the journey of developing the neural network and applying the trained modules to this real-life scenario."

The researchers, however, made no mention of cost, which could be a significant barrier to implementing VR technology. Not all patients may have access to VR devices because of the high cost of the hardware and software required.

There is also the issue of complying with healthcare regulations. Both VR developers and healthcare professionals must adhere to the necessary medical standards and guidelines to ensure their products are safe for patients.

Despite these obstacles, as technology advances, we can expect to see a lot more VR implementation in medical assessments, which will no doubt enhance access to care, patient engagement, and the quality of medical services.

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