by Sostene Costantino
Physical rehabilitation after an injury is tough. The entire process consists of a repetitive loop of dull exercises, performed during the pain of a serious injury. More often than not, it can be a demoralising and demotivating experience.
Virtual reality technology, a rapidly improving technology in recent years, aims to improve this experience. It capitalises on the holistic potential of a virtual world: offering motivation to patients during rehab and improving their exercise routine in a fun, immersive environment.
This prospect has stimulated many social enterprises. Take AppAttic: a start-up that created virtual reality software called ‘Magic Moovr’, a virtual reality game which adapts to the physical ability of the player. “This software is all about engagement and involvement,” says co-founder Carley Morrow.
Although, the ultimate goal is to employ this technology for rehab purposes, AppAttic wants people to experience its qualities first hand. “That is why we are releasing it as a game while it goes under clinical research.”
Dr. Isabel Van de Keere, founder of the start-up Immersive Rehab, first became involved in virtual reality for personal reasons: “On 29 September 2010, I had a work accident that left me immobilised for a long period of time,” she says. “That meant a long rehabilitation process, which was often isolating and demotivating.”
She decided to look into how technology could improve rehab, drawing from her educational background in biomedical engineering. “Initially, it was about how to make the whole process more engaging.”
Figures show that on average patients who suffered strokes or had spinal cord injuries only regain 15 per cent of their upper limb mobility during clinical rehab in hospital.
“When they leave the hospital, they are offered almost nothing,” she says. “My goal became how to change the way things were done.”
Once she secured funding, Dr. Van de Keere began to develop brand new VR software, specifically tailored for patients affected by stroke or spinal cord injuries.
“Our commitment is very much to the early stages of physical rehab for such conditions. That is why we aim to sell our software to hospitals and clinics,” she says. “Another reason is that VR technology is still very expensive, so many people cannot afford it at home.”
Up until now, the trials on patients have been conducted only on a voluntary basis. “We have to ask for their permission,” says Dr. Van De Keere, “assuring them that this is not part of a trial and it is only a demo.”
Immersive Rehab’s VR software is medical software and is therefore categorised as ‘treatment’. Consequently, it falls under the medical devices regulations and needs the approval of health agencies. In order to achieve that, it is mandatory to undergo a clinical trial.
“That is the next phase and the reason why we are looking for more funding and investments. When we receive the stamp of approval, we will be able to market our software to hospitals.”
The results and feedback Dr. Van De Keere received for her software have convinced her of the advantages of VR Rehab. She believes that there is a much more important medical advantage to VR than simply making the rehab process more engaging.
“In VR, we can make patients interact with objects, when in the physical world, due to the severity of their injuries, they would not be able to,” she says.
Making patients perform exercises they couldn’t otherwise do drastically improves their recovery of motor capabilities. The process also proved to be a rewarding experience for the patients, who came away with a sense of accomplishment that they couldn’t previously achieve.
Many of them praised the experience, while physiotherapists hailed the “vast self-care implications this technology promises”, as NHS GP Dr. Amir Mehrkar said of Immersive Rehab software.
Nevertheless, the future of VR rehab is still very dependent on the validation of this technology. This is especially true in health care, which Dr Van De Keere feels is a very conservative sector.
“People need to understand the technology, before they know how useful it can be,” she says. “People have to learn to look at VR like they look at mobile phones.”
In her eyes, it will take a while for this to happen. “Now we are in VR winter, but it is only a matter of time before we get to VR spring. Then things will change for the better.”
Featured Image submitted by Immersive Rehab Ltd