When the Virtual Becomes Reality

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After only a couple of hours using Google’s new virtual reality program Tilt Brush, Tobias van Schneider felt like a god.

“I’m so confident and fluid using these VR tools, they feel almost native,” writes the designer in a post on Medium. “I scale my environment up and down, rotate objects and teleport around my own dream world . . . I can do anything I want!”

Whether you’re painting with fire or immersing yourself in a fantasy world, advances in virtual reality force us to answer some interesting questions about the nature of reality. After all, writes Rebecca Searles in The Atlantic, “VR’s very purpose is to make it difficult to distinguish simulation from reality.”
In this issue of Telemedicine Magazine, we set our focus on expressions of “virtual healthcare” across a range of specialties. But to understand virtual healthcare, we have to start by understanding what it isn’t. One definition of virtual is “not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so.” This idea applies elegantly to the ethereal environments created by Tobias van Schneider within the Google Daydream, but feels problematic when used to describe the care a doctor renders to a patient. Is that “virtual” too? After all, what is more physically “real” than life saving care, however it is delivered?

This dichotomy is on display in our profile of Mercy Virtual Hospital on page 32. The state-of-the-art facility is as futuristic as they come, and yet the name is misleading. At Mercy Virtual, the physical has not ceased to exist. The hospital itself, far from being a creation on a screen, is one of the most striking, creative healthcare facilities I’ve ever seen. The healthcare providers are flesh and blood doctors and nurses, not ones and zeroes. They show up for their shifts day in and day out, like you and me. And their patients? A mess of unique hopes and pain, struggles and passions. In other words, real life – viewed digitally.

Brock Webberman, co-founder of Insight Optics, has blended the virtual with the concrete in a way that may also be a bellwether for the industry (read the interview on page 9). His startup took the idea of virtual eye exams and layered on a network of local physicians to gain the best of both worlds – fast, cheap, accessible tests followed by face-to-face follow-up for improved continuity of care.

The realm of virtual reality has created an angst among some physicians about the future of virtual healthcare. What will happen to the doctor’s touch in a world of augmented and mixed reality headsets, of bots and algorithms? But today’s market tells a different story, one where “virtual healthcare” still centers around one patient and one provider connecting over a sacred – albeit digital – space to share their real lives for a few intimate moments. In the end, virtual healthcare won’t make us like gods, or cause us to forget the world, but by increasing access to care, it just might elevate our humanity.
As always, if you have a tip for a story that you think should be included in Telemedicine, my line is always open. Together, let’s chart healthcare’s virtual future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Co-Founder / Editor-in-Chief Logan has created, edited and designed healthcare publications since 2005. After redesigning and managing Emergency Physicians Monthly, he founded Emergency Physicians International in 2010, and then launched Telemedicine Magazine in 2015. Logan is the co-founder of The mHealth Toolbox, a project that brings practicing physicians into the conversation about innovative medical technology. Logan also serves as the Director of Communications for The IFEM Foundation, the leading non-profit supporting global emergency care development.

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