Can virtual reality reduce patient anxiety during surgery and save on sedatives? A study suggests so.
New technologies also find their place in medicine. Surgeons train in virtual reality or prepare for complex operations, such as the separation of conjoined twins. In the future, patients may also benefit from VR headsets in the operating room.
The surgery is usually performed under local anesthesia. Doctors block a local nerve, but patients remain fully conscious during the operation.
To prevent them from having anxiety or panic attacks during surgery, they are put into a twilight state with sedatives. This can sometimes have unwanted side effects.
Does virtual reality prevent anxiety in the operating room?
As an anesthesiologist, Professor Adeel Faruki of the University of Colorado School of Medicine must be constantly alert to patients’ pain and anxiety. Most sedatives are safe, he says, but they slow breathing and raise blood pressure.
For one study, Faruki and a team of researchers looked at 40 patients who had undergone hand surgery. The idea: Why not use virtual reality to distract patients and reduce their anxiety without using sedatives?
The results of the Colorado study are remarkable. Patients who watched VR content during surgery and were shielded from ambient noise with headphones used significantly less sedation per hour than patients who were traditionally sedated.
In the study, almost half the amount of anesthetic propofol was saved. In terms of overall comfort during surgery, subjects found no significant difference between virtual reality and conventional sedation.
Advantages of virtual reality in the operating room
For the Colorado researchers, the benefits of virtual reality in the operating room are clear, and not just for reassurance. While patients in the twilight state are unable to provide useful information about their condition, the VR headset enables communication between doctors and patients.
For example, the remaining duration of the operation can be communicated via text messages overlaid on the VR headset, or the patient can be directly asked about their state of mind, Faruki explains. In the future, researchers want to send elderly patients into virtual reality during hip operations – the side effects of sedatives are more dangerous for them than for young people.
Virtual reality is already used in hospitals
Virtual reality is also making its way into German operating rooms. At the Fichtelgebirge hospital, patients watch films during the operation. The VR headset is designed to help patients relax during operations under local anesthesia, explains the hospital in Marktredwitz, Upper Franconia.
Patients can choose from a variety of movies, including Mission Impossible starring Tom Cruise. Classical music concerts are also offered. It is not yet known which application will be used for the VR presentation. After a test phase and positive feedback, virtual reality will become a permanent fixture in the hospital network.
Virtual reality is already being used successfully in hospitals for operations in the UK.