For better or for worse, over the coming years Virtual Realities are going to change how we identify with many tasks in both our private and professional lives. The healthcare industry in particular is standing out from the crowd as the true opportunity for both consumer healthcare and patients to benefit from. Virtual Realties in healthcare promises to improve patient outcomes through both education and promoting positive behaviour, but the biggest challenge over the coming years will be the data to support such claims.
We define the different virtual realities, then look at why and where they are starting to make an impact in consumer health with some key examples. We conclude by looking at what are the true benefits from investing in this unique, immersive technology and what the hurdles are right now.
If you’ve picked up the papers over the past 12 months you may have noticed Virtual Reality (VR) making a few headlines. It’s a digital revolution that is going to change the face of almost every industry, especially consumer healthcare over the next 2 – 5 years.
The term ‘virtual reality’ essentially covers 3 key virtual technologies:
Virtual Reality (VR) – replaces the real world with a simulated one
Augmented Reality (AR) – is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data
Mixed Reality (MR) – sometimes referred to as hybrid reality, is the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time.
As we experienced with the social media marketing revolution some 10 years ago, VR technologies are now rapidly gaining traction in so many market sectors, particularly gaming, property, tourism and healthcare, which is the sleeping giant here.
Arguably, VR has already entered centre stage in the healthcare arena in the most momentous yet unlikely way – Pokemon Go increased U.S. activity levels by 144 billion steps in just 30 days! What other technology can promote such healthy behaviour?
Growth of VR technologies is set to hit $120bn by 2020, with Augmented Reality taking the lion share ($90bn) of this based on the fact we all carry a mobile device that allows for us to easily experience the true values of the technology. Virtual & Mixed Realities on the other hand requires an often clunky headset, that many of us still don’t own, which will ultimately restrict its growth in comparison to AR.
In terms of healthcare, VR technology is already proving its worth in secondary and tertiary care, with many specialist, innovative therapeutic uses appearing, from training future surgeons, relaxing chronic sufferers with distraction therapy, through to allowing children to experience their home surrounds from a hospital bed. One thing to note here is that all three of these successful uses have one thing in common – value adding content, and this is paramount for succeeding with VR.
The primary care and OTC industry is also starting to show promising signs of take up, albeit at an entry level. There have been a few interesting campaigns/apps of late, notably Exedrin’s The Migraine Experience (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmJW8gYIN4E), where anyone can experience the debilitating effects of migraine.
Phobias are being tackled with exposure therapy experiences where the wearer is encouraged to face their fears of spiders (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csD1ue-RuNw), flying, needles and public speaking. SnowWorld is an interesting application designed to reduce the pain suffered by burns victims through virtual interaction with snow, and whilst the app is only available for wound care right now, expect similar consumer ready apps to roll out for minor burn pain management.
Advancements in general wellbeing are also being promoted across a number of VR applications, including Playstation VR’s Perfect experience (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=By3hXOnPbQ0), which will transport you to a range of stunning locations to unwind in.
Insomniac and anxiety sufferers are being targeted by an ever growing range of VR apps such as Guided Meditation VR (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QY-61ufmsx4) for smartphones, where the wearer is taught to meditate in a serene environment, whilst their heart rate is being measured.
Orbital Media are currently developing an educational asthma app with the help of the University of Suffolk, which will promote positive behaviours around managing the condition to sufferers from the age of 5, through an AR and VR application (http://www.orbitalmedia.com/orbital-labs/augmented-virtual-reality-asthma-app/).
All the above examples provide hugely valuable experiences through kinaesthetic (visual) learning, which has not been achieved in the mainstream before. OTC brands therefore have the ability to improve learned patient behaviours through for example, positive repetitive activity techniques that promotes healing. Not forgetting the importance of immersive ailment education – imagine being able to experience the minor ailment as a single blood cell, this would surely provide the patient with a better understanding of the issue and lead them to prioritise their recovery/management more effectively. What does flu look like anyway?
In relation to VR commercialisation, we’re still in the early stages, with many marketers understandably scratching their heads as to how to make VR a pay day. You may remember similar arguments arising in the early days of social media, which is now now considered a marketing essential. Right now a total focus on commercialisation of VR is likely to be a hindrance to getting started, we’re still working it out to a degree.
Over the next 2-5 years we will see consumer healthcare brands invest in VR technologies that won’t necessarily yield immediate financial returns, but will certainly raise a brand’s profile and ensure they remain relevant in a rapidly changing market. VR will be used in the following ways:
Improving patient outcomes. As we’re already seeing, VR technologies will increasingly be used as a support act to the drug for the benefit of improving patient outcomes. For instance, a hangover relief experience from a well known paracetamol brand would not only make a great story, but may in fact be proven to reduce the impact of hangovers.
But here in lies a key issue in the provision of research data that proves VR technologies actually do have a positive impact on the patient. To combat this, as the technology becomes more mainstream, expect to see a dramatic increase in cost effective Real World Evidence data becoming available, which proves a positive correlation (in most instances), which will effectively convince the consumer it’s not a gimmick, but actually a very a worthwhile experience.
Pharmacy training has a direct correlation to the amount of units you sell. So therefore have you considered how such a VR training experience could a) better educate the pharmacist and b) lift your brand above your competitors, c) cement your brand firmly in the minds of the pharmacist, and d) massively reduce your training costs. Orbital Media recently developed a virtual pharmacist training experience, and are now looking to trial it in the field.
Publicity. The consumer healthcare market is absolutely ready for a disruptive technology such as VR, and those brave enough to take the leap early on will benefit from the glory.
Strengthen market position. Following on from the previous point, positioning your brand/healthcare business as a VR thought leader would offer extensive benefits, including greater positive trade and consumer awareness, enhanced product value and therefore greater sales opportunities, even if initially sold alongside a ‘gimmick’.
Future proofing. Even with the best known OTC brands, remaining relevant in a crowded market is a key challenge for today’s marketer. Technology is an out of control continuum and will without doubt leave the slow adopters behind. VR, much like social media, is something that will continue to dominate the headlines.
New revenue streams. As did the social media frenzy, over the next 5 years the VR market will mature and the ‘fluffy’ aspect of the technology will become less appealing as we find the golden goose. Revenue streams are likely to play out in advertising, product placement, NHS/private healthcare licencing and app download sales (as a support or individual medical device).
Whilst there are clearly extensive opportunities for adopting VR, the consumer healthcare industry is rightfully cautious about VR technologies and the potential added value to the patient, which must, in most instances, be supported by claims – right now there is simply too little clinical data available to keep the medical officers happy.
NICE are also struggling to define and police mHealth applications, but work is firmly in progress here to roll out guidelines. So, possibly due to a lack of legal guidance combined with a severe lack of ROI understanding amongst the majority of marketers, there is a nervousness, which will stunt growth expectations over the next 2 years. However, there will be some huge wins for those brave enough to embrace it, get creative and deliver solutions that can honestly claim to improve a patient’s desired outcome. At the very least they will help create more relevance for their brands.
Expect to see a surge of investment into VR clinical trials and Real World Evidence programs over the next 2-5 years, with mixed patient results. These results combined with medical protocol guidelines from the likes of NICE, the MHRA and PAGB the will pave a very exciting future for VR technologies in consumer healthcare.