FDA initiative puts AR/VR at heart of home health drive

Apple Vision Pro

A new programme announced by the FDA will work towards the use of augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) to make patients’ own homes an integral part of the healthcare system.

The Home as a Health Care Hub initiative is part of a drive by the FDSA to tackle health inequity, where people from some racial and ethnic minority (REM) populations and those who live in rural communities and lower-income neighbourhoods are being let down by the current system revolving around clinical facilities.

At its heart is a project run by the FDA’s Centre for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH) to design an AR/VR-enabled prototype home with the help of a specialist architectural company, to explore how the technologies can be integrated with the healthcare system and adapt according to evolving patient needs.

The prototype – which is initially being developed using diabetes as a model illness – is expected to be completed later this year.

Diabetes is a good starting point to test the approach, as people in REM groups in the US are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than white populations, more likely to be affected by out-of-range blood sugar levels, and are also at higher risk of complications from the disease.

The disparity has been attributed to factors such as socioeconomic status, living in rural communities, reduced access to care, and failings in health education.

In a joint statement, CDRH director Jeff Shuren and Michelle Tarver, the centre’s deputy director for transformation, said that the current healthcare model has been undermined by shortages in primary care physicians and specialists, rising costs, and growing numbers of people with chronic diseases.

That has increasingly led to a situation where there is an “inability to meet the health care needs of millions of people who have no or limited access to health care systems.”

The new project aims to bring together patient groups, health care providers, and the medical device industry to build the prototype, which will “serve as an idea lab, not only to connect with populations most affected by health inequity, but also for medical device developers, policymakers, and providers to begin developing home-based solutions that advance health equity,” they added.

“By shifting the care model from systems to people, the health care system can triage scarce resources to those with the most urgent and critical needs and tailor personalised care for those managing chronic conditions.”

AR/VR and mixed reality have been used in healthcare settings for some time using devices like Google Glass and Oculus Rift, and the recent launch of the Apple Vision Pro device has prompted a new and diverse wave of applications spanning clinical education, surgical planning, training, medical imaging, behavioural health, and more.

The Home as a Health Care Hub is a first step in seeing how these technologies – which are very expensive at the moment – could in principle be applied at scale.

According to Shuren and Tarver, the project is only “the beginning of the conversation” and intended to assist in the design of interventions, help doctors understand how they can be used to educate and care for patients, gauge how they may show their cost-effectiveness to payers, and expand opportunities to participate in clinical trials.