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How virtual reality might help address the mental doctor shortage

More folks are looking for mental health treatment today than previously, but there just aren’t enough therapists to meet up the growing demand.

In 2020, it had been estimated that around 41.4 million adults in the U.S. received mental health treatment or counseling. Only around 106,500 psychologists possess current licenses in the usa.

A deluge of digital health apps has to enter the market. A number of these, however, are made to be low-intensity, low-touch; they’re mental health apps and tools that guide mindfulness and meditation or do not require the touch of a clinician. Even though telehealth has helped provide sweeping usage of high-touch treatment, virtual care is still tied to the shortage of therapists.

Virtual the truth is the “goldilocks” the mental health sector has been looking forward to, says Risa Weisberg, chief clinical officer at mental health technology vendor BehaVR, an authorized clinical psychologist and a specialist in cognitive behavioral therapy. She is a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and an adjunct professor of family medicine at Brown University.

Healthcare IT News sat down with Weisberg to go over what telehealth cannot do to cure the therapist shortage, how virtual reality works in mental healthcare, why she believes VR may be the goldilocks response to the staffing problem, and how virtual reality can provide usage of alternatives to pharmacological treatments like opioids.

Q. Telehealth certainly has made mental healthcare open to a lot more people. Where in your view does telehealth appear short?

A. Telehealth can remove potential access barriers for patients such as for example geographic location or transportation to a scheduled appointment. Therefore, telehealth could make it simpler to look for a therapist, as any therapist licensed in hawaii where the patient lives may now be considered a potential fit.

Further, it could increase access for patients with busy schedules, and also require time for a 50-minute appointment, however, not for happen to be and from the therapist’s office, and for patients with mobility difficulties.

All of these are actually positive contributions. Unfortunately, what we’re facing in the behavioral health space at this time is really a severe shortage of professionals, a thing that telehealth doesn’t solve for.

As a psychologist, I could personally verify how difficult it’s been to get colleagues with openings for new patients during the last couple of years. However, the limited amount of trained therapists, particularly therapists trained to provide empirically supported psychotherapies, was a concern a long time before COVID-19.

We simply never really had sufficient amounts of providers to meet up the demand. Now, because of the pressures of the pandemic, the necessity is greater and the supply could be shrinking as much therapists are leaving the field because of burnout.

There just aren’t enough folks to meet the existing demand for quality mental healthcare, which leaves many patients desperate to discover a provider or facing many months-long wait lists for a scheduled appointment.

Telehealth may alleviate the responsibility of planing a trip to your therapist’s office, nonetheless it doesn’t create new capacity within the. What we are in need of are new, sustainable solutions which will bridge the gap between your growing amount of patients seeking mental and behavioral health treatment, and the amount of qualified professionals trained to supply that care.

Q. What’s virtual reality technology, and so how exactly does it work in mental healthcare?

A. Most digital health experiences at this time are two-dimensional. When we’re getting together with our smartphone or laptop, our brains process those experiences just as, which is to state, it isn’t happening if you ask me it’s something I’m reading or watching.

Virtual reality replaces your sensory input, creating an immersive experience that the mind processes similar to a totally new reality. It’s as though whatever you’re seeing and hearing is in fact happening for you. This degree of engagement implies that the experiences in VR are processed by the human brain in quite similar way that actual experiences are.

The opportunity to activate neural processes in this manner is incredibly ideal for implementing well-understood therapeutic ways to address mental and behavioral health issues. VR gives us the opportunity to transport you to definitely a calm, peaceful place for a meditation session, removing distractions from the exterior world and enhancing attentional focus.

Importantly, we are able to also create environments which are deliberately made to arouse and challenge individuals within exposure therapy. Actually, contact with feared situations, including flying, heights and also combat, is among the most consistently studied and applied uses of VR for mental health.

Q. You have said that virtual the truth is “the goldilocks” mental healthcare needs. Please elaborate.

A. We’ve seen an unbelievable upsurge in digital health solutions targeted at closing the gap in mental healthcare during the last couple of years. Many companies have created platforms for finding and delivering telehealth psychotherapy sessions.

These solutions are high-touch for the reason that though in-person care is not needed, there remains a dependence on an authorized clinician to be synchronously present for several of the patients’ care and therefore, they don’t really expand the reach of our limited mental health workforce.

Solutions at another end of the spectrum, such as for example smartphone apps, also have proliferated recently. Several companies are doing fantastic work and, like telehealth, have played a significant role in the area.

Nearly all these phone app solutions are made to be utilized independently, often without the oversight by way of a clinician. These low-touch solutions thus do a fantastic job of addressing the shortage of mental health practitionersby offering individuals searching for mental and behavioral health assistance options that do not require a provider.

However, because the majority of us could be easily distracted when working with our phones, and as the apps with which we take part in on our phones aren’t fully immersive, the impact of the interventions could be limited for those who need a lot more than low-intensity care.

VR experiences built on the foundations of empirically supported psychotherapies might provide a perfect solution. These experiences, because they’re fully immersive and processed as if they’re actually happening for you, have promise to potentially show clinical effectiveness which may be more much like that of some in-person therapy, but with the flexibleness to be utilized with out a clinician present.

Whether wellness products that folks utilize entirely by themselves or prescribed VR programs when a clinician is involved with care but doesn’t need to be there synchronously during all the sessions, VR may be the goldilocks, or hybrid, solution that the must scale mental health services without adding new burden to current providers.

Q. Additionally you claim that virtual reality can provide usage of alternatives to pharmacological treatments like opioids. How?

A. First, it is critical to remember that virtual reality won’t completely replace drugs or in-person therapy. You can find use cases that could require pharmacological interventions and/or traditional in-office psychotherapy. However, for a few individuals plus some behavioral health indications, VR interventions may end up being equally robust treatment plans.

One particular area is that of pain care. VR interventions could be effective in addressing and reducing pain, both as a stand-alone solution so when a supplement to physical therapy along with other options for treating pain.

Adequate research has explored the usage of VR to supply distraction and/or relaxation during episodes of acute agony, rendering it a promising option to the usage of opioids in acute and post-surgical care.

In a 2021 overview of VR applications in military and veteran healthcare, researchers reported, among other findings, a 39% decrease in the full total dose of opioid medication useful for patients who received a VR intervention during burn wound care. The authors claim that VR could give a scalable, non-opioid treatment solution for soldiers dealing with combat injuries later on.

Further, solutions have significantly more been recently developed to handle chronic pain via VR interventions. These programs often incorporate mindfulness strategies, calming environmentsand/or breathing ways to activate a patient’s parasympathetic nervous system and bring treatment as time passes.

VR interventions are also developed to greatly help individuals better understand their chronic pain and reduce their tendency to catastrophize their pain and/or to encourage exercise in patients who’ve developed a concern with pain and movement.

Amid the opioid epidemic, VR interventions for acute and chronic pain could lessen the quantity of opioid medication prescribed and potentially result in less problems with medication use problems later on.

Additionally, VR interventions are increasingly being developed to directly address opioid use disorder, using evidence-based treatment options.

Overall, I believe we are amid a significant transformation in how a lot of people view their mental health insurance and access care. The pandemic has taught a lot of us how crucially important our mental health is and showed us how difficult it really is to gain access to high-quality, evidence-based care.

Similarly, VR as a technology has been growing quickly within the last many years with greater capacity to generate fully immersive experiences and at a far more affordable price. I really believe that the synergy of the two changing fields will probably bring about better solutions and various behavioral healthcare scenarios to which VR solutions could be applied.


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