Immersive Rehab is about giving patients options

The end of September 2010, a time engraved in my brain. It was the day my life changed in a second. I had a severe work accident that resulted in me losing my mobility and my independence, the latter possibly the worst aspect of my accident.

The development of Immersive Rehab

In order to recover from my accident, I went through a long physical rehab period that was often boring, demotivating and isolating. As an active person who loves sports, travelling and hanging out with friends, my rehabilitation impacted both my physical and mental wellbeing. I was lucky enough to have a great support network to keep my motivation up and stay resilient while working hard on improving my physical activity level and overall wellbeing. I am forever grateful for that.

After a long rehabilitation period, I started working and enjoying a more active lifestyle again. Often thinking back to what I had and have lost following my accident and what I have gained going forward, Immersive Rehab started to develop in my head. As an electro-mechanical engineer and doctor in biomedical engineering myself, I wanted to use technology to change the way physical therapy was being approached, make it more engaging, and improve patient outcome and access to physical and neuro-rehabilitation facilities.

Limitations in current treatment

Since I only had my own physical therapy experience following my work accident, I began my research journey into a variety of medical conditions to learn more about the current physical therapy approach and efficacy.

I started looking into other neurological/neuromuscular conditions like spinal cord injury, stroke and multiple sclerosis.

I came across staggeringly low numbers in terms of mobility gain post the initial rehab period offered by national healthcare systems.

For example, every year about 15 million people worldwide suffer a stroke, which is the second leading cause of disability. Nearly 6 million stroke sufferers die each year and another 5 million are left permanently disabled with current physiotherapy practices, which is about 55 per cent of all stroke survivors. All stroke survivors (9 million) need some form of physical and neuro-rehabilitation to regain physical and cognitive skills. Currently, those stroke patients regain on average only about 15 per cent of their upper-limb mobility post neuro-rehab, which is too limited to have proper upper-limb functionality and hence independence.

Another issue next to limited mobility gain is access to physical and neuro-rehabilitation facilities with referral times into specialised physical and neuro-rehabilitation facilities being on average between three and nine months.

Improving motor function with virtual reality

Immersive Rehab is all about empowering patients going through physical and neuro-rehabilitation and giving them more of their independence back, thereby improving their overall upper and lower limb mobility, reducing referral times into physical and neuro-rehabilitation facilities and preventing patients from becoming demoralised by their condition. It is important to offer people access to effective physiotherapy exercises and to keep people engaged in their physical therapy programme as this is key in their recovery process.

Research has shown retraining the brain can lead to important gains in mobility. We propose that immersive virtual reality and Immersive Rehab’s interactive physiotherapy programmes can impact this significantly. When people enter the virtual world, they perform physiotherapy exercises by interacting with virtual objects, something often not achievable in the real world. By engaging a person's brain into thinking they are actually moving objects around, it is possible to tap into the neuroplasticity of their brain, i.e. ability to change and adapt, which can lead to important improvements in motor function.

Immersive Rehab is about giving patients options as there is nothing worse than having no options at all.

You can find more details about our work here or follow us on Twitter.

Isabel Van De Keere will be a breakout session panelist at The Future of People Powered Health 2018 event on 2 May. Join the conversation on Twitter #peoplepoweredhealth