Occupational Therapy and Virtual Reality


Written by Ian Cheok (Occupational Therapist).
18th February, 2020.

While it can be challenging to see the trials and tribulations of people with complex chronic health issues, hearing their pain recovery stories can be very rewarding. The patient’s road to recovery is often long and arduous, as most people have to juggle appointments, manage
the uncertainties of treatment outcomes, and endure the symptoms of their conditions. This leaves little room for personal expression and growth.

As occupational therapists, we see health as not just the absence of illness or injuries, but as an opportunity to do what matters to them. Since the birth of the profession, occupational therapy practitioners have understood the importance of using engaging activities as a means of recovery. A person might wish to regain her ability to dress herself independently, a goal she can use during “dress rehearsal” training sessions to improve her physical performance and self-confidence. Likewise, we encourage people to participate in artistic endeavours that bring joy and respite from their daily grind. I have always been intrigued with the magical qualities of using meaningful and purposeful activities in a therapeutic context. It allows the patient to be more in control of their recovery journey, and for therapists to practice their clinical skills in the most humane and creative manner.

However, these days it is often challenging to implement such therapy programs due resource constraints. Individuals may have their medical and functional needs met, but they often suffer grievously from a loss of purpose in their lives. Most often believe they must wait until they are well again to restore that purpose. For some, that day may never come, as they spend their entire lives managing their chronic conditions. This is where I see the potential of using emerging technologies such as virtual reality (VR) to overcome these barriers.

So, what is virtual reality?
Virtual Reality (VR) is the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment. Unlike traditional computer user interfaces, VR places you inside an experience. Instead of viewing a screen in front of you, VR allows you to view and interact with 3D worlds. Multiple
senses such as vision, hearing, touch, and movement are stimulated as the VR device (often a headset) is transformed into a gatekeeper to this artificial world. The only limits to near-real VR experiences are the availability of content and cheap computing power.

VR and The Future of OT
The immersive and interactive qualities of VR, coupled with enriched environments it generates, allows people to move away from their diagnosis/disability whilst enabling active participation in rehabilitation. Occupational Therapists can tailor individualised virtual experiences (occupations) for individuals during rehabilitation sessions to make it meaningful, fun and engaging for the client. Increasing research studies show the benefits of using VR in different rehabilitation settings such as pain management, mental health care, neurorehabilitation and more. In coming posts, I will cover the use of VR in these different areas.

While VR technology is still at its infancy and not a panacea for everything, more research and educational initiatives are underway to ensure that this new approach therapy is safe and effective for everyone. As the technology improves, more opportunities are likely to occur; as rehabilitation specialists, we must keep our contact with these developments and develop ourselves according to our clients’ needs.

Occupational Therapy and Virtual Reality