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Revamped Virtual Med Center Makes Health Care Feel Like a Video Game

Image of Picture of the Virtual Medical Center. Click to open a larger version of the image. The relaunched Virtual Medical Center leverages emerging technologies such as virtual reality to increase and improve accessibility, convenience, and efficiency of medical care for all registered users (Photo by: Photo Dept. of Veterans Affairs Virtual Medical Center)

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Years ago, going to a medical appointment required driving across town to see a doctor or other provider in person.

But these days, military veterans and active-duty service members can go online, choose a customized avatar, and virtually visit a doctor, meet with therapists, or consult about their care from a variety of locations beyond the clinic.

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Virtual Medical Center offers patients a video game-style experience. It features a virtual “Heroes Beach” where patients can “sit” around a bonfire in front of a panoramic view of the sea at sunset, sharing stories with others in a warm and inviting setting.

The VMC is currently available to both veterans and service members and their families.

Initially launched in 2015, the VMC platform provides patients, providers, and staff a virtual, interactive clinical setting where they can access information on specific topics in 2D as well as the option to virtually interact with other users individually or in group settings in 3D. An updated web version of the VMC is being launched at the end of the summer, which will allow users the full 3D experience without having to download anything onto their computers.

The expanded version comes at a time of increased demand for telehealth and other remote services. It includes new resources and innovative options that leverage current technologies like virtual reality to improve accessibility, provide convenience, and expand efficiency of medical care to all registered users. It also includes the new Performance Health and Wellness Center, a new clinic within the VMC that will offer synchronous and asynchronous educational programs for veterans and active-duty service members on cardiovascular disease risk factors. 

“It is very exciting to be able to build upon existing resources to bridge prevention efforts across the Department of Defense and the VA,” said Patty Deuster, executive director of the Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science in Bethesda, Maryland.

In the 3D mode, users can interact in and explore the VMC in the form of an avatar they select and customize to their choosing. Then, they can navigate through the different environments by teleporting their avatar as though they were in a video game. They can share their experience with colleagues, providers, friends, or family in their contact lists.

Registered users can access a series of clinics focusing on general health topics, specific medical conditions, disease management, or well-being. It also offers one-on-one consultations with providers or private group meetings, as well as more relaxing spaces for reflection, therapy, or conversation.

For example, in addition to primary care, mental and behavioral health, pain management, post-deployment, and palliative care clinics, there are group therapy and counseling rooms, reflection rooms, and a chapel where patient avatars can meet with therapists, counselors, and chaplains.

In between sessions, they can congregate at the "Warriors’ Café," in the VMC lobby, to mingle with others over coffee or teleport to the “Cybrary,” — a cyber library and research hub filled with educational material on medical questions, diseases, illnesses, etc. These include interactive media content like streaming videos, documents, and websites available at the easy click of a button.

The Virtual Educations Training Assistant, known as VETA, is also available to answer questions on medications, symptoms, and disease management as well as to provide links to informational media catalogued in the VA system.

“The wellness center will simplify information for the military population and ensure access to trustworthy, military-relevant health education resources accessible from anywhere, 24 hours each day, and seven days each week,” said Don Shell, acting director of health services policy and oversight, and director of disease, disease prevention, disease management, and population health policy and oversight.

Regardless of which mode users select, they will have access to many features including public, group, and private text chat and Voice Over IP channels through which to collaborate and communicate. Topic-based lobbies and lounges allow patients to meet with others to discuss health topics and mutual interests.

From amphitheaters to private offices to high-tech conference rooms to the virtual beach, the VMC has event venues to suit nearly everyone’s needs.

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