Imagine scanning openings for psychiatry jobs only to find one listing with virtual reality as one of the qualifications. You might wonder, “where did that come from?” Well, get ready. The psychiatry jobs of the future may very well include a healthy dose of virtual reality.
Virtual reality technology has been around for a couple of decades. Granted, it wasn’t until recently that it reached a level of maturity that made it suitable for mass marketing. The technology has also been fairly cost-prohibitive. But prices are coming down while the quality of virtual reality is going up. We now have a perfect storm for researching the effectiveness of virtual reality for treating certain conditions.
What Virtual Reality Is
Virtual reality is a technology that creates a complete environmental simulation within a computerized environment. In the simplest systems, it consists of 3D graphics and stereo sounds. More complex systems can go 4D to address the tactile senses.
The modern offspring of early virtual reality technology is augmented reality. This technology augments a real-world environment with computer-generated sensory input that could include anything from video to alphanumeric data. Combining virtual reality with augmented reality could lead to incredible things in psychiatry in the very near future.
Virtual Reality and Autism
How close are we to seeing virtual reality as a means of practicing psychiatry? If Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Arshya Vahabzadeh has anything to say about it, we are a lot closer than many people realize. Dr. Vahabzadeh’s company has been working with a technology partner to develop augmented reality technology for children with autism.
His research has shown that augmented reality can act as an electronic coach to teach autistic children how to recognize and understand facial expressions. A child who might not otherwise be able to tell when a parent is sad can learn to identify what sad looks like through augmented reality. Dr. Vahabzadeh likens the technology to training wheels that help a young child learn to ride a bicycle.
Virtual Reality for Anxiety
Dr. Vahabzadeh’s research is by no means the only research currently being conducted. Other researchers are looking at it to treat all sorts of anxiety issues, according to a recent Medscape article. People fearful of everything from heights to enclosed spaces can benefit from virtual and augmented reality that creates digital ‘interventions’ to train the brain how to avoid high levels of anxiety.
Even patients suffering from various kinds of trauma can benefit from it. The technology can be used to teach patients different techniques they can use to cope with their anxieties. It is all very complex at one level and yet easy to understand on another.
What It Would Mean to Psychiatrists
Assuming virtual and augmented reality both prove beneficial enough to be part of mainstream psychiatry, what would that mean to the psychiatrist? It would mean a bit of education to learn how the technologies work and how they can be used to benefit certain kinds of patients. Virtual and augmented reality would by no means replace the psychiatrist.
Technology is helping to advance nearly every area of medicine. Should we expect it to advance psychiatry? Absolutely. At the pace technology is currently advancing, it is reasonable to expect that psychiatry jobs will look far different 20 years from now compared to what they look like today.
Whether you are a private practice psychiatrist, a locum, or an employed member of a hospital staff or group practice, the future of what you do looks bright. Virtual reality is helping to shape that future.