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Virtual reality therapy continues to show success

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Virtual reality is continuing to show success as a therapeutic method, an outcome that is increasingly attracting health organizations and digital health startups to the healthcare space.

Virtual reality therapy is a catch-all term describing the use of a virtual headset as a tool for psychological or occupational therapy. The primary aim is to allow patients to navigate through digitally created environments, which medical professionals have reviewed, and to complete a series of specially designed tasks.

One popular example of the application of the technology is an alternative form of exposure therapy; here a patient interacts with harmless virtual representations of some traumatic stimuli, with the aim of reducing fear responses. A second example is with the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are other medical applications, such as with aiding stroke patients to regain muscle control or to improve social skills in those diagnosed with autism. These examples illustrated how scientists have used virtual reality therapies for cognitive therapies and structural desensitization of patients suffering from a variety of psychological disorders.

Therapists in Singapore have also undertaken studies that show virtual reality can be used to address computer gaming and internet addition. Publishing in the journal Technology and Healthcare, researchers described how virtual reality therapy can be combined with more traditional cognitive behavioral therapy to help patients.

Care needs to be taken, however, not overstate the case of virtual reality therapy. As Brighton and Suxxes Medical School researchers recently wrote: “Outcomes may overstate the impact of virtual reality therapy and technological novelty, while not fully unpacking hidden digital effects. A wide set of agreed, flexible, and patient-centered outcome measures are required to establish positive clinical baseline.” This position indicates that virtual reality therapy remains an emerging digital health technology.

For a decade or so, virtual reality has been confined to the more expensive side of healthcare but more affordable mobile virtual reality headsets such as Samsung Gear is taking VR more mainstream. With cheaper access to physical hardware there are more opportunities to apply telemedicine and decentralize mental health treatment by allowing medical professionals to reach patients anywhere in the world, virtually.

This has also opened the door for several startups to invest in virtual reality therapy treatments.

Spanish startup Psious has developed an exposure therapy tool to address phobias, allowing psychologists to create the right environment for exposure therapy  while at the same time permitting therapists to obtain a real-time look at what their patient sees. Through this approach the therapist can adjust the experience as needed.

A Swiss startup called MindMaze is working on a virtual reality program for paralysis patients. The company intends to simulate functional body parts for people with paralyzed limbs. This idea is more complex and is supported by some psychologists, but not by others.

Finally, Seattle startup Firsthand Technology is assessing how VR can be used to treat pain. The company’s pain relief application called SnowWorld is designed to help patience recovering in hospital burn wards explore a world of snow men and forget about pain.

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North America’s first digital hospital launches second generation Command Centre

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From left to right: Jhanvi Solanki, Dr. Susan Tory and Jane Casey in Humber River Hospital’s Command Centre. - Photo by Humber River Hospital
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Do the words ‘command centre’ make you think of huge rooms with NASA scientists, expertly making sure a Mars rover lands safely on the Red Planet?

What if a command centre could revolutionize the patient experience in one of the busiest hospitals in North America, bringing a new standard of patient-centered, quality healthcare?

Combining Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and professional expertise, Humber River Hospital in Toronto has launched the world’s first clinical analytic applications, in partnership with GE Healthcare Partners (GEHC). 

Displayed on large-screen monitors at HRH’s 4,500 square-foot Command Centre, these four new applications or analytic ’tiles’ use “standardized early warning systems, predictive analytics, real-time information from multiple digital systems,” alongside the professional expertise of experienced nurses.

Canadian Patient Safety Institute and Canadian Institute for Health Information data shows that 1 in 18 hospital stays in Canada involved at least one harmful event. This addition to the Command Centre means quicker alerts for clinical staff, and better protection for patients with conditions that make them vulnerable to risks of adverse events, or adverse outcomes.

The Humber River Hospital is the Greater Toronto Area’s (GTA) largest acute care centre, serving a catchment area of more than 850,000 in the city’s northwest. Opening in 2015, it was also North America’s first fully digital hospital. 

Just two years later, HRH opened the first generation of its Command Centre, a data-driven ‘mission control’ offering real-time insight on patient flow, via advanced algorithms and predictive analytics. As a result, the hospital has “unlocked” the equivalent of 35 additional beds — and the ability to treat thousands of additional patients.

Get an inside look at HRH’s Generation 2 Command Centre:

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Canadian startup Deep Genomics uses AI to speed up drug discovery

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One of the biggest challenges pharmaceutical companies face is with the time taken to discover new drugs, develop them and get them to market. This lengthy process is punctuated with false starts. Startup Deep Genomics uses AI to accelerate the process.

Canadian startup Deep Genomics has been using artificial intelligence as a mechanism to speed up the drug discovery process, combining digital simulation technology with biological science and automation. The company has built a platform which uses machine learning to delve into the molecular basis of genetic diseases. The platform can analyze potential candidate drugs and identify those which appear most promising for further development by scientists.

The drug development process is dependent upon many factors, such as those relating to combining molecules (noting the interactions between hundreds of biological entities) and with the assessment of biomedical data. The data review required at these stages is highly complex. For these reasons, many researchers are seeking algorithms to help to extract data for analysis.

According to MaRS, Deep Genomics is addressing the time consuming element involved in the initial stages of drug discovery. The artificial intelligence system that the company has designed is able to process 69 billion molecules, comparing each one against around one million cellular processes. This type of analysis would have taken a conventional computer (or a team of humans) many years to run the necessary computations.

Within a few months, Deep Genomics AI has narrowed down the billions of combination to shortlist of 1,000 potential drugs. This process is not only faster, it narrows down the number of experiments that would need to be run, saving on laboratory tests and ensuring that only those drugs with a high chance of success are progressed to the clinical trial stage.

This type of system goes some way to addressing the lengthy typical time to market, which stands at around 14 years for a candidate drug; as well as reducing the costs for drug development, which run into the billions of dollars per drug.

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Health service partners with Alexa to provide medical support

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The U.K. National Health Service (NHS) is to partner with Amazon’s Alexa in order to provide health information. This is being piloted as an alternative to medical advice helplines and to reduce the number of medical appointments.

While the U.K. NHS is much admired around the world as a free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare system, health officials are always keen to find ways to reduce the strain on the systems, especially relating to medical visits where the process of booking appointments and waiting times for sessions with doctors can be lengthy. The average time to obtain a non-medical emergency appointment with a general medical practitioner is averaging around two weeks.

Although a non-emergency medical helpline is active (accessed by dialling 111), plus an online system, health officials are keen to explore other ways by which the U.K. population can access medical services. For this reason, NHS England is partnering with Amazon.

The use of Alexa voice technology not only offers an alternative service for digitally-savvy patients, it provides a potentially easier route for elderly and visually impaired citizens, as well as those who cannot access the Internet through a keyboard, to gain access to health information. This fits in with a new initiative from the U.K. Government called NHSX, which is about the NHS Long Term Plan intended to make more NHS services available digitally.

As PharmaPhorum reports, Alexa can now answer questions such as “Alexa, how do I treat a migraine?” and “Alexa, what are the symptoms of flu?”

Outside of the U.K., Amazon is working with several healthcare providers, including digital health coaching companies, in order to launch six new Alexa healthcare ‘skills’. According to Rachel Jiang, head of Alexa Health & Wellness: “Every day developers are inventing with voice to build helpful and convenient experiences for their customers. These new skills are designed to help customers manage a variety of healthcare needs at home simply using voice – whether it’s booking a medical appointment, accessing hospital post-discharge instructions, checking on the status of a prescription delivery and more.”

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