Virtual reality healthcare has real-life legal implications - Lindsay McCosh

VR technology’s increasing role in healthcare could be a factor in a number of legal contexts, writes ​Lindsay McCosh

Virtual reality (VR) is increasingly ubiquitous in different areas of life, from entertainment and education to retail. It is also making inroads into healthcare, with important potential implications for consumers and legal practitioners.

VR refers to a simulated 3D environment, enabling users to explore and interact with a virtual surrounding in a way that approximates reality. It commonly involves wearing a VR headset which picks up a person’s movements and adjusts their view on a headset screen in real time.

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In healthcare, VR technology is used in several different contexts:

​VR platforms are becoming more common in the spheres of training and edcutation, physical therapy and mental health (Picture: stock.adobe.com)​VR platforms are becoming more common in the spheres of training and edcutation, physical therapy and mental health (Picture: stock.adobe.com)
​VR platforms are becoming more common in the spheres of training and edcutation, physical therapy and mental health (Picture: stock.adobe.com)

Training and Education

VR platforms are used to provide immersive and hands-on training for surgeons and clinicians. A study at the University of California found VR training improved surgeons’ overall performance by 230 per cent compared with traditional training methods. VR platforms offer on- demand, portable training, saving time and money compared to traditional practice with cadavers.

VR has also been used to train medical students. In 2022, Imperial College London introduced VR training to simulate emergency situations such as cardiac arrests or asthma attacks, giving trainee medics multiple choice questions on how to proceed. This creates branched scenarios, bringing to life the consequences of decisions and helping prepare students for practice.

The University of East Anglia provided medical students with VR headsets in 2021 to enable them to immerse themselves in anatomy, emergency medicine and examinations. The University of Exeter uses VR X-ray rooms for diagnostic radiography students to practise techniques in a simulated environment.

Lindsay McCosh is a Trainee Solicitor, Balfour+MansonLindsay McCosh is a Trainee Solicitor, Balfour+Manson
Lindsay McCosh is a Trainee Solicitor, Balfour+Manson

Additionally, VR can be used as a tool for empathy, allowing medical students or doctors to experience age-related conditions such as macular degeneration and high frequency hearing loss from a patient’s perspective.

Physical Therapy

VR can be used to create interactive and immersive environments which enable people to regain mobility, strengthen muscles, and improve balance and coordination. Studies have shown VR therapy is an effective treatment for the rehabilitation of children with cerebral palsy, and results in improved motor function. In this context, VR is effective as it is entertaining, motivating, and enables adaptations to the real world.

Additionally, researchers and clinicians in Sheffield and Leeds are developing a VR platform to improve the physiotherapy of children living with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a paediatric disease that causes muscles to deteriorate and break down.

Mental Health and Psychological Therapy

A study by nine NHS Trusts trialled the use of VR to treat patients diagnosed with psychosis, finding the biggest benefits were experienced by those with the most challenging psychological problems (such as severe agoraphobia). In parts of Northern England, VR treatment is available for young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder who have specific anxieties or phobias. VR can also offer immersive relaxation experiences, reducing stress and promoting wellbeing through guided meditations, breathing exercises, and serene landscapes.

Future implications for legal practitioners

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VR therapies (or the cost of these) may form part of claims in medical negligence and personal injury actions, if they can be shown to benefit an individual. Additionally, legal practitioners may have to consider potential negligence in the use of VR platforms as part of treatment. Injury may result from the use of VR equipment, and there could be issues in respect of liability for defective VR technology.

At the moment, VR technologies are subject to existing legal and regulatory frameworks, for example in terms of intellectual property, data protection and privacy, content regulation, and consumer protection. However, innovations may be required as VR technologies become more widely available and potentially raise novel issues.

Lindsay McCosh is a Trainee Solicitor, Balfour+Manson

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