The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Xavier Palomer, chief executive officer of Psious, a virtual reality platform that helps combat anxiety disorders and other health problems. Palomer discussed how virtual reality can alleviate therapy processes for patients and leads to more efficient healthcare delivery.
Eline Chivot: You have a background in physics, electrical engineering, and bioengineering, and before creating Psious, you were involved in research and development. What has led you to the digital health sector and to creating your startup?
Xavier Palomer: Seven years ago I was enjoying an evening out with two friends and one revealed he was struggling with the fear of flying. He had been looking for ways to cure his phobia but found nothing. The other friend, a psychologist, suggested that virtual reality could help. With my background as a physicist and engineer, ideas started to spark.
After countless hours of conducting research on cures and virtual reality therapy, I realized there weren’t any market ready solutions ready for the market; nothing was particularly engaging. At that time, I left my PhD at the Colorado University, Boulder, and came back to Barcelona to found a company in virtual reality therapy, with the aim of making it easier for all people to overcome a phobia in an economical, efficient, and fast way. Immediately I approached a number of developers and virtual reality engineers, built a basic product, and generated positive feedback from psychologists.
Chivot: Psious uses a mobile-based technology to be able to apply virtual reality solutions. Can you explain how it works, and how it helps develop actionable therapies?
Palomer: Psious is a company that develops software-as-a-service (SAAS) and the environments on our platform can be accessed through your Internet browser.
Psious is better used by certified clinicians as our environments are not considered treatments per se, and their intended use is to aid the implementation of the different interventions delivered by the therapist.
There is no need to be fully conversant on virtual reality or to have any specific coding knowledge or advanced computer skills.
The headset we provide, PicoG2, is manufactured according to CE standards and has a CE certificate that ensures its safety for use and its compliance with the essential requirements. It considered a class B product—Pico Interactive, the manufacturer of our headset, declares that this device is in compliance with the essential requirements and other relevant provisions of Directive 2014/53/EU.
Our headset comes prepared with the necessary software to link it to Psious’ platform via Wi-Fi. All the clinicians need to do is follow the step-by-step guide provided. Psious offers ongoing technical support should they encounter any difficulties linking the headset with the platform or indeed, while using it.
We recommend that the clinician familiarizes himself or herself with the system before using it with their clients.
Chivot: What is the experience of a patient using your device? How do you involve them and health practitioners when creating virtual environments?
Palomer: Patients are usually very happy with the use of our environments by their clinicians for a variety of reasons, namely, there is no stigma attached to using virtual reality as a treatment, patients are more likely to engage with exposure therapy in virtual reality than with in-vivo, less likely to drop out from treatment, they may require less sessions to complete their therapy and the clinician has full control over the environment and so do they, there are minimal side-effects and, if successful, the treatment is curative.
Traditionally, we have collected anecdotal patient feedback that our clients have passed on (anonymously) and we are currently implementing a set of patient-reported outcome measures to capture that information in a more structured way. We collect pseudonymized data to help us develop more efficient and useful environments for our network of health professionals. There is no way of identifying individual patients on our databases and we are fully compliant with HIPAA (the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and GDPR (the EU General Data Protection Regulation).
We routinely incorporate our health professionals’ views on the process of designing our environments and, in turn, their views are shaped by the interaction with their patients. We don’t have a direct channel with the patient as of yet, since we believe that the value proposition we have is to remain invisible and let the clinician use us to establish stronger and better therapeutic relationships with their patients. Having said that, our medical department is working on the idea of establishing patient advisory boards in the near future as we recognize the tremendous value patients’ views have in shaping their own treatments as part of a shared care model.
Chivot: What are the incentives for hospitals and other medical facilities to invest in such tools?
Palomer: First of all, it’s a drug-free treatment. Virtual reality has been shown to be effective for a wide array of mental disorders, including phobias, social anxiety, and stress. And for hospitals and other medical centers, there is the advantage that therapy is faster and more effective, reducing the waiting list in the public sector and reducing the costs. Also, patients can follow the treatment from home, increasing its long-term effectiveness.
In addition, Psious provided valuable insights in the reports section. The biofeedback sensor collects information and records the patient’s anxiety levels during exposure with virtual reality (the electrodermal activity or galvanic skin response). The practitioner can also ask the patients the SUDS (Subjective Units of Distress Scale). They ask on a scale of 0 to 10 the subjective intensity of disturbance or distress they are currently experiencing. All this information will be reflected in the end-of-session report.
Chivot: Which other sectors or domains of applications could benefit from virtual reality? What is your vision for what patients will be able to do with this technology in, say, 10 years?
Palomer: Virtual reality started in the 1950s but the real improvement took place in 2014 when Facebook bought Oculus and as some of the biggest technology companies such as Google, Microsoft, Samsung, and Sony started to enter this field. We have seen this technology being implemented in several areas, not only videogames, but also in medicine, retail, or human resources. And we will see more sectors using this technology.
In 10 years I expect virtual reality to be one of the main tools to treat patients in the mental health sector. Due to the coronavirus, teletherapy is normalizing and we hope that this trend will continue in the coming years. That is why we have adapted our software with the Psious@home app, and currently, psychologists can treat their patients from home.