Virtual reality to change the face of healthcare


“Virtual reality might be used officially to treat patients in the Kingdom within two years,” said Dr. Wadee AlHalabi an Associate Professor and Director of the Virtual Reality Research Center at Effat University.

In an exclusive interview with Saudi Gazette, Dr. Wadee AlHalabi who has been working in VR since 2007 opened up about his research that focuses on the use of VR in medical applications. Dr. AlHalabi works on controlling the intensity of pain that patients feel during wound care or physical therapy by only relying on VR.

“We first started this project in Texas, USA in 2010 and we treated over 300 patients using VR but now we are taking it into the next level and we are treating patients of the Kingdom as well,” he said.

Since 2011, Dr. AlHalabi started collaborating with Dr. Hunter Hoffman from the University of Washington who holds a PhD in Cognitive Science and has been in the VR since more than 17 years ago. They both collaborated with Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas, which is mostly for burn patients from 0 to 18 years old. It is with the participation of Dr. Walter Meyer who is the Director of the Psychology and Psychiatry Services.

“Our part in this project is to design the VR environment. That environment is what we will use to distract the patients’ attention so that they do not feel much pain while they receive the therapy,” said Dr. AlHalabi.

When asked about the advantages of VR in treatments and health sector as well as using VR technology in the Kingdom, Dr. AlHalabi explained, “an incident I remember is that one while treating a child by using VR. After we finished, the child asked: ‘when are we going to start?’ this is actually a proof of how VR can really distract patients and make them feel less pain. In fact, we managed throughout the years to reduce the pain by only using VR from 6 or 7 to go down to 2 or 3,” he added.

Dr. AlHalabi added, “for a long period of time, I have been thinking to move the technology to Saudi Arabia. But it is very difficult until we have everything ready before starting this process here. However, I started the project since 2017 with King Abdulaziz University Hospital (KAUH). I am collaborating with Dr. Fatima AlZahrani and Dr. Faiza AlSini who are from the Pediatric Department and we focus on sickle cell anemia patients. I am also working with Dr. Sultan AlAmri who is in KAHU as well but in Family Medicine and our focus is on Alzheimer patients.”

As for Alzheimer patients, Dr. AlHalabi worked with Dr. AlAmri to build a virtual environment to test patients. He said, “it is called the memory test. This test includes some pictures such as a tree or a traffic light that the patient can see while walking and at the end, we would ask the patient: what did you see? So, based on the answers, we will get a score about the patient’s memory that tells the physician if the patient managed to pass the test or not. What is being implemented today in hospitals is that the patient is sent to undergo MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) which is very expensive and time-consuming. Not only that but to request an appointment for the MRI would take at least two to three weeks. As a result, it is obvious that there are lots of advantages of using VR. Moreover, this experiment was never implemented before and we are the first ones to do this specific kind of experiment not only in Saudi Arabia but in the whole world,” Dr. AlHalabi told Saudi Gazette.

Asked about challenges, Dr. AlHalabi mentioned that the most obstacle facing research is the funding. He also wished for the Ministry of Health participate and collaborate with the team in order to help funding the project. “When I first talked to the doctors in KAUH, they were very helpful and excited to help especially that what we are doing is something humanitarian and beneficial for the patients,” he added.

Dr. AlHalabi shared his future plans of using VR in a new project next year for autism patients with the help of Dr. Waleed AlGhamdi in KAUH to train Autistic children by using the VR.

The whole project of using VR started in Texas, USA with a team of mainly Dr. Hunter Hoffman, Dr. Walt Meyer, Dr. David Patterson, and Dr. Wadee AlHalabi. Then it was developed to be implemented in the Kingdom with a team of mainly Dr. Hunter Hoffman, Dr. Wadee AlHalabi, Dr. Sultan AlAmri, Dr. Faiza AlSini, Dr. Fatima AlZahrani, Dr. Abdulrahman Sabbag, and Dr. Waleed AlGhamdi.