Immersive technologies for the health and wellbeing of the population

Although immersive technologies—which include virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality—were launched several decades ago, their application in health care and social welfare is still growing today. In recent years, their potential has been demonstrated in professional training, patient rehabilitation and entertainment, and in the emotional wellbeing of users.  

Immersive tools seek to replicate a real or physical environment through simulations or digitised experiences, which the user perceives with headsets, glasses, immersive projectors or other image or sound devices. Virtual reality shows the user a completely digital environment in which they can interact without real-world perception. Augmented reality shows the real world with the addition or overlay of digital information; and mixed reality presents this added information anchored to real-world objects and allows user interaction. All these tools are called extended reality and they create a multi-sensory space that can be perceived visually, auditorily and tactilely (and sometimes also smelled). Therefore, they make it possible to carry out therapy sessions with cognitive, physical and emotional stimulation. 

Use cases of immersive technologies in health and social centres 

Various immersive tools are now being used in hospitals and social care organisations in Catalonia in specialities such as mental health, geriatric care, neurorehabilitation and cognitive stimulation, paediatrics, palliative care and surgery, among others. At Hospital Clínic in Barcelona, for example, various cases have already been simulated with virtual reality. On the one hand, neonatal intubation complications were simulated in extremely premature infants to train the team of professionals in rare cases. On the other hand, virtual reality was used in a pilot test to reduce the patients’ stress and anxiety where they are going in for surgery through graded exposure to the situations they would have to face. According to the hospital, there was a 70% success rate [1]. 

Regarding the applications of these technologies, exposure therapies can improve the treatment of phobias in patients with psychological or psychiatric conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The use of extended reality allows them to be gradually exposed to their phobias in safe and controlled environments. 

With regard to mental health, during COVID-19 at Olot Hospital, immersive relaxation therapies—such as the mindfulness technique—were used with virtual reality to reduce stress and anxiety, and manage the emotional state of health care professionals. A study published in the Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health details the process and the satisfaction with the results [2]. A similar process was also carried out at Germans Trias i Pujol University Hospital. 

In the field of cognitive stimulation, reminiscence and memory therapies have been developed to treat dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders; cognitive behavioural therapies for people with autism, intellectual disabilities or other neurodevelopmental disorders; and occupational therapies for the elderly and people with special needs, among others. In neurorehabilitation, visual rehabilitation therapies are provided for patients who have suffered a stroke or other injuries, as well as functional rehabilitation and coordination therapies, among others, at centres such as Institut Guttmann in Badalona and Doctor Josep Trueta University Hospital in Girona. 

In addition, virtual reality is already being used for pain management in various hospitals. It is effective after surgery and during childbirth and cancer treatment, among others. It is also used in physical rehabilitation therapies and to improve mood control in burn patients.  

Other use cases in Catalonia include the application of virtual reality to calm and support children during vaccination and people receiving radiotherapy as cancer treatment. 

Solutions developed in Catalonia 

A wide range of Catalan companies are developing immersive technology solutions for hospitals and other health and social centres. These notably include Broomx (a company founded in Barcelona that offers a wide range of therapeutic tools), Eodyne Systems (a spin-off from Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) that has developed a system for ICU patients), VRPharma (which makes virtual reality designed for hospital use), the research team at the Graphics and Image Laboratory at the University of Girona (GILab), Psious (a Catalan company focused on improving mental health), Nixi for Children (a Barcelona company that prepares virtual reality projects for children who need to receive medical treatment), Immersium Studio (a spin-off from the Open University of Catalonia (UOC)), VRMax Centers (also from Barcelona, which offers virtual, augmented and mixed reality projects) and Mediapro (through Visyon and Unitecnic). 

In short, as the mHealth team at the TIC Salut Social Foundation points out, “Immersive technologies are very useful in the field of health and social welfare. They offer multiple possibilities and new fields to explore to contribute to improving the care of patients and the general population.” 

[Article drafted by the mHealth Area at the TIC Salut Social Foundation ]

References and information sources: 

1. Hospital Clínic Barcelona. The clinic incorporates virtual reality to reduce the anxiety of patients about to have an operation.  

2. Marta Linares-Chamorro, Neus Domènech-Oller, Javier Jerez-Roig & Joel Piqué-Buisan. (2022). Immersive Therapy for Improving Anxiety in Health Professionals of a Regional Hospital during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Quasi-Experimental Pilot Study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19, no. 16. 9793 

3. Jeremy Dalton, Michael Philip Craven, Sarah Ticho et al. (2021). The Growing Value of XR in Healthcare in the United Kingdom. UK Research and Innovation. NHS – Health Education England 

4. Broomx. Guide to using Broomx technology in the health sector.  

5. Broomx. Immersive therapies for health care and social care. care  

6. Barcelona Health Hub. Virtual reality helps to reduce stress in health care professionals during the pandemic of COVID-19. care-professionals-during-the-pandemic-of-covid-19-bhhmembersinitiatives/  

7. MetaData. Virtual reality to exercise ICU patients and reduce their recovery time. 

8. MetaData. Josep Trueta Hospital is testing the use of virtual reality to rehabilitate stroke patients. 

9. MetaData. Psious, virtual reality that lends a hand to mental health.  

10. MetaData. Vall d’Hebron uses virtual reality to support children receiving radiotherapy. 

11. MetaData. Virtual reality glasses to calm children about to be vaccinated. 

12. Nixi for the children. Virtual reality that empowers patients. 

  • As the mHealth team at the TIC Salut Social Foundation points out, immersive technologies are very useful in the field of health and social welfare. They offer multiple possibilities and new fields to explore to contribute to improving the care of patients and the general population.