Virtual reality shows potential for management of pain – but challenges persist

Virtual reality technology can help manage pain, but it needs to be adapted to address the needs of different populations

30th September 2021 about a 2 minute read
"There is a tremendous unmet need in the US to deliver evidence-based digital therapeutics to the broader population." Dr Urmimala Sarkar, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco

Clinicians are interested in the use of virtual reality (VR) to help patients manage pain, but believe that barriers remain to adoption, a new study has found.

The study, a collaboration between researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and virtual reality provider AppliedVR, was based on interviews with healthcare providers, leaders and administrators from safety-net health systems and academic medical centres.

Researchers found that frontline pain management clinicians and leaders are interested in the potential of VR, but that it will need to be adapted if it is to address the needs of the populations they serve. These adaptations include translation, cultural tailoring and usability testing.

“The participants cited integration into complex workflows, structural costs and reimbursement concerns as major concerns to implementing and scaling VR use,” the researchers wrote, in an article in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

An alternative to opioids

Studies into the efficacy of VR as a tool for managing pain have shown that it can be a safe and effective alternative to opioids, the researchers noted. Many of these studies, however, have been conducted amongst populations that are “ethnically homogeneous” and “relatively advantaged”.

Some of the barriers to adoption relate to the way the US health care system is funded, and would not apply to the NHS. Dr Urmimala Sarkar, lead author on the study and UCSF professor of medicine, said that there was a “tremendous unmet need in the US to deliver evidence-based digital therapeutics to the broader population.” She added: “But it will require collaboration across industries to overcome the hurdles that stand in the way of wider adoption, including commitments from payers for more reimbursement and adapted content that tailors to the needs of diverse populations.”

The signs are promising, however. One 2019 study found that VR “significantly reduces pain versus an active control condition in hospitalized patients” and that it was “most effective for severe pain”.

Josh Sackman, president and cofounder of AppliedVR, said: “Our goal is to make VR the standard of care in pain management for everyone, and research like this is critical to understanding how we can create more usable, more affordable and more equitable treatment programs.”