The COVID-19 pandemic has taken more than a million lives since the beginning of this year. But, underneath the morbidity statistics, lurks a secret public health crisis. To fight it, doctors are turning to an unlikely ally: Virtual Reality (VR).
COVID-19 has already taken a considerable toll. At the end of September, it was reported that the first six months of the pandemic saw more than one million deaths. The IHME has projected that the death toll could rise to two-and-a-half million by January next year.
The pandemic has also taken the world's economy to its knees. The IMF has estimated that the coronavirus will end up costing businesses some $28tn.
But indirect COVID-19 deaths are also a serious concern. Numbers of missed cancer screenings, falling childhood vaccination rates and alcohol & drug deaths are all piling up at a time when medical services around the world are overwhelmed.
But underneath all these figures lurks a secret public health crisis: a mental health epidemic which is spreading quickly across the globe. Now, doctors are turning to an unlikely solution to help stem the spread: Virtual Reality (VR).
For decades, scientists have spotted uses for virtual reality technologies which go far beyond entertainment. According to the Scientific American, some 5,000 studies "reveal that VR has an uncanny ability to diminish pain, steady nerves, and boost mental health."
VR has been used for the treatment of phobias for more than 20 years, imitating treatments that gradually expose patients to fear stimulus. Even better, virtual reality therapies are not limited to services which have been impacted by COVID-19. Instead, they can be administered at home without the need for a medical professional to be present.
Dr Wendy Powell, senior member of the IEEE and associate professor in the Department of Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence at Tilburg University, argues:
As well as aiding with mental health, VR has been shown to help physical and cognitive rehabilitation, with many VR applications being able to support a range of therapeutic programmes, such as tracking body movements through VR sensors. Systems such as these can be used diagnostically as well as for treatment and could perhaps pave the way for earlier detection of some physical or mental disorders.
These applications of VR technology are already producing results. The University of Alberta conducted a study which found that "remote and digital mental health treatments for frontline workers are delivering outcomes comparable to face-to-face therapies."
As these technologies continue to prove themselves as effective in the fight against the mental health crisis, we can only expect them to become ever more common. In doing so, Dr Powell argues, we could see mental health services improve across the globe:
A greater emphasis on prevention and early detection is going to become increasingly seen as the world moves away from a reactive “one size fits all” healthcare system into a proactive and adaptive model of prevention and care.