How does an art project lead to a health-tech start-up and what is the NHSX’s vision for VR? In this episode, you will hear from Charles – a surgeon, academic and Emteq CSO, and Sarah, the founder of Hatsumi and the Healthcare Lead at Immerse UK. Hatsumi is a research and design studio that works at the intersection of arts, health and immersive technology,  developing experiences that challenge how we think and feel about the world and imagining the future of health and wellbeing.  

In the podcast, you will hear about Sarah’s diverse background and how her PhD thesis turned into a start-up idea. Sarah  studied Anthropology and Japanese and her work experience ranges from working in film to working for the NHS. Her experience in the healthcare system made her first interested in digital health and specifically in using immersive technology as a storytelling tool to explore mental health and pain. She worked as a researcher with Stanford’s Psychiatry and Anthropology Labs to research how VR can be used as a research tool. Tune in to hear more about her research and how her vision has developed into reality.

From an art project to a health-tech start-up

During this episode, Sarah tells us about her role as a VR curator at The Big Anxiety Festival – an art and mental health festival based at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. At the time she noticed that most of the immersive experiences for mental health were either medically-focused, designed by clinicians or art-focused. However, she managed to find a project that was working on bridging the gap between all three.

Deep is a meditative VR game controlled by breathing which includes biofeedback. The authors of the idea – artists and scientists – have been working on clinical trials to test if their solutions could have a positive impact on patients with anxiety and children with complex needs. Listen in to hear Sarah explain the factors that are essential in creating a successful immersive technology solution for mental health, how to go from researching and designing a VR product to implementing it in clinical practice and where else the product can be used within healthcare. From staff welfare and training, to mental health, social prescribing, PTSD, COPD and diagnosing ADHD, Charles and Sarah enthusiastically discuss the potential future uses of VR in healthcare that can make a massive impact.

Oculus, Data Security and Safety Initiatives

During the podcast, Sarah also shares her views on the newest updates about Oculus. Just as a recap, in 2014, Oculus was acquired by Facebook, signalling Facebook’s ambitions to bring VR to the masses. During a recent annual virtual/augmented reality conference, Facebook rolled out a lighter, cheaper, higher-resolution version called the Quest 2. Facebook is aspiring to create VR devices that will not only be used for social interaction but also as Infinite Office (a virtual office environment).  However, what are the security considerations that should be kept in mind? Should we be worried about having to sign in with our Facebook account to use the Oculus?

“It makes me incredibly nervous,” says Sarah. Although Facebook says they do not want to be involved in healthcare, because of the amount of data that can be gathered during VR, we need to understand what data management and regulation systems there are behind their technologies. Charles explains that we should learn from the experience with healthcare smartphone apps – some of them were originally medical devices without validation, frameworks and standards. To avoid harm, standards and regulations are crucial. Fortunately, conversations about regulation and safety across the industry are now taking place. Listen to the podcast to hear more about the councils looking at regulation and safety initiatives that are already working on these issues.

Data collection

VR can collect a vast amount of information. On the one hand, such data could advance research in many fields, including medicine and Sarah shares an example of a company that managed to diagnose ADHD using VR. On the other hand, medical data – specifically mental health data – is really sensitive. Because there are no clear frameworks and regulations for the industry in place, start-ups are reluctant to register themselves as medical devices, investors are risk-averse and data is not collected, which makes it difficult for entrepreneurs to prove the efficacy of their solutions.

“Are we potentially limiting how [VR] could be used, if it was used in a positive, useful and safe way?” Let us know what you think in the comment below.

The state of VR in the UK

Is it time to get excited about VR? COVID-19 not only increased the interest in immersive technologies but also nudged some organisations to implement them, for example, Health Education England started using VR for training. Moreover, the BBC announced that it would hand over their VR R&D lab to NHSX.

What about the future and next steps? As Healthcare Lead at Immerse UK, Sarah is developing policies regarding the implementation, regulation and future of developing VR for healthcare in the UK. “What we need is a central strategy for immersive healthcare that will include standards, plans for distribution and scaling”, says Sarah. During the episode, we discuss what stakeholders are needed to make this a reality. We also discuss how the field could benefit from interdisciplinary, collaborative approaches. Partnerships between entrepreneurs, care homes, hospitals, universities, artists, gamers and many more have the potential to create optimum, immersive and validated experiences.

Interested in learning more or getting involved? Listen to the episode and get in touch!

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Get in touch with the guest – Sarah Ticho