New Disney movie: coming to a hospital near you?

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“It's actually challenging 400 years of dogma, which has been to learn on plastic models or to learn on cadavers,” explains Dr Danny P. Goel, CEO of Precision OS and an orthopaedic surgeon by training. What he is describing is the result of a collaboration between his company, a trailblazer in developing orthopaedic surgical training in VR, and Epic Games, creator of the hit game Fortnite. If this sounds like an unlikely friendship, that’s because it is. But it might just be the first of many to pave the way for the healthcare industry of the future.

In 2016, the founders of Precision OS set out to create a virtual reality training platform that simulates the experience of being in the operating room as closely as possible – without putting human life at risk. Two of them, Colin O’Connor and Roberto Oliveira, with decades of game industry experience under their belts, chose Epic Game’s Unreal Engine platform for its visual quality and toolset as the technology foundation of their training solution.

What makes their brainchild nothing short of groundbreaking goes well beyond smooth graphics. Trainees are encouraged to make mistakes in simulation – the only place they can. “The decisions you make prior to and during surgery are how we impact patient outcomes,” says Goel. Among other things. In 2020, an independent study found that VR trainees were not only superior to non-VR ones in terms of technical skills but also learnt 570% faster.

But this is just one example of how the merger of entertainment and healthcare industry capabilities is gaining momentum. This May saw the release of The Growing Value of XR in Healthcare, a report prepared in cooperation with the UK’s National Health Service to explore strategies and priorities for using XR in the healthcare sector. The verdict? Immersive technologies’ potential to improve care for patients and reduce costs for national health systems like the NHS is enormous.

Extended reality applications can cut the costs of training and improve overall surgical performance by as much as 230% versus old-school training methods. Just as importantly, they can help patients face operations and treatments that they would otherwise avoid, meaning possible savings to the tune of £2 million per year. Not to mention that delivering therapies remotely can be 2-3 times cheaper, less time-consuming and more engaging than the traditional way.

For all these benefits, immersive technology research and development, funding and adoption is lagging. “Pockets of innovation sit in industry, isolated from the clinicians or researchers needed to turn ideas into reality,” reads the study. “It is extremely difficult for products or experiences to convert into clinical trials to substantiate the value and impact. It is even harder to get in front of commissioners, procurers or purchasers.” At least for now.

Around the same time the NHS report was released, Royal Philips and The Walt Disney Company EMEA broke the news of a partnership that combines clinical expertise with storytelling. The healthcare technology and entertainment giants have teamed up to study how animation, including custom Disney stories, can enhance the Philips Ambient Experience during paediatric MRI procedures. The solution is expected to make medical exams less stressful for kids, especially those who are anxious or claustrophobic.

Patients are free to customise the room’s lighting, video and sound, and children to pick their favourite Disney content for a sense of familiarity, control and comfort. They can hop on the magical carpet with Aladdin and Jasmine in tow or swing through skyscrapers with Spiderman – and leave the examination room with positive feelings and memories. Besides creating a relaxing atmosphere, the Disney heroes will also help create bonds and improve the staff’s ability to perform their tasks.

The clinical research project might be the first of its kind Disney has taken part in, but it’s hardly going to be the last. In 2018, the mass media and entertainment conglomerate announced a commitment of $100 million to help reimagine the patient journey for children in hospitals around the world as part of their global Social Purpose programme.

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