Healthcare in the U.S. is facing a lot of uncertainty due to changing policies and an aging demographic. People over the age of 65 will soon make up 55% of the nation’s population, causing a shortage of 40,800 to 100,000 physicians. Luckily, advances in technologies such as virtual reality, wearable devices, and 5G may provide both an affordable alternative and improved quality of life including better personal care monitoring, more effective treatment, and a helping hand in the operating room.

Empowering personal health

According to a new report released earlier this month by the National Center for Health Statistics, nearly 40% of Americans are obese, contributing to a dramatic increase in chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. Nearly half of all Americans suffer from one or both of these conditions, which are now responsible for 85% of health care costs. A new wave of wearables are being combined with digital reality apps to empower people to take control of their wellness in the fight to reduce these conditions.

Just as personal finance applications like Mint and Venmo have guided a generation to financial fitness, self-monitoring apps can objectively measure a user’s behavior to create personalized intervention before a health issue escalates. Healthcare today can often be reactive – for example, doctors receive intermittent data from patients after they suffer a heart attack or discover a lump. By then, treatment usually takes place in a hospital. As virtual reality and augmented reality headsets become mainstream, these devices can provide patients (and their doctors) with continuous measurements such as electrocardiograms, electroencephalograms, blood pressure, and oximeter readings. As more doctors and patients feed their data into machine-learning software programs, big data analytics can help reduce the incidence of chronic illness and its associated costs. Personal health monitoring may help prevent or reduce the cost of treatment for all four leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), and stroke.

Enabling new treatment strategies

While we are still in the early stages of the digital reality revolution, virtual reality is already proving itself as a life-saving and cost-reducing tool for traditional healthcare providers. Pain reduction, which is at the center of the opioid epidemic, is an effective example of VR’s cost-effective approach to patient care. A recent study of patients with back pain, shoulder pain, abdominal pain, and even post-surgical wound pain showed a 24% reduction in pain using VR visualizations. Less pain led to a decrease in length of stay, thereby significantly reducing hospital bills. a wintery snow world environment to distract burn patients from the pain of having their wound dressings changed. With America in the middle of an opioid crisis, these non-narcotic uses of VR pain management could be applied both in the hospital and at home.

Taking VR one step further, surgeons at several teaching hospitals are now experimenting with VR in the operating room. Instead of surgeons spending hours hunched over microscopes while performing neurosurgery or retinal microsurgery, doctors can use VR headsets to receive more visual information with added comfort. Virtual reality is also helping to train the next generation of physicians.

Bringing expertise and treatment to where it’s needed most

Another area where VR is gaining traction is with home care. The more patients can manage their health from home, the more efficient they can be with their time. Virtual reality programs for dealing with anxiety disorders, PTSD, and even physical therapy have been created to enable patients to use these tools not only with their physician, but at home. For example, some vision conditions can require extensive vision therapy. Products such as Vivid Vision can offer support to patients who can’t visit clinics frequently or for post-treatment home maintenance. Similarly, virtual and augmented reality is helping those suffering from strokes or fighting Parkinson’s to work on balance and muscle control. What all these approaches have in common is giving patients greater control of their health.

Technology is paving the way for better care in the future

Thanks to the research and experimentation going on today, and as wearable digital reality hardware becomes more affordable, we can use it to prevent and treat chronic illnesses and thereby improve quality of life.

Jay Samit is independent vice chairman of Deloitte’s Digital Reality practice and author of the bestselling book “Disrupt You!“  This post was first published in Fortune on October 24, 2017

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