It is in our nature to ask questions and look for answers that will better prepare and equip us for the challenges we face, and we’re increasingly finding these answers through digital tools. The last few years brought a massive shift towards digital in the way healthcare and therapy are delivered to patients, and post-pandemic it’s showing no sign of slowly down. Psychologists have been looking at ways to incorporate technology to deliver more integrated therapy.
So, let’s take a look at what’s to come in the future for tech in therapy.
Virtual Reality (VR) is a computer generated environment where scenes and objects appear real, giving the user the sensation of being immersed in a virtual world. VR environments are accessed through headsets and while typically associated with gaming, are also used in education (such as learning to perform surgery!) and in sports performance training.
During the COVID-19 pandemic where many people quarantined, the use of VR sets increased exponentially. It allowed people to connect and play games with each other in ways beyond that allowed through video calling.
While using VR in therapy is a relatively new concept, it's quickly gaining traction in the medical community as an effective way to treat patients with conditions like PTSD, phobias, anxiety disorders and depression.
The immersive nature of VR allows users a safe and distraction free environment where they can express themselves through a 3D avatar. Studies have shown VR can help patients feel more comfortable around, and connected to, their therapist over time . One study showed that using a virtual environment to practice social skills can help improve real-life interactions for people on the Autism Spectrum. Another study found that letting patients choose their own avatars can be particularly useful in cases of sexual assault, helping patients feel more comfortable discussing sensitive topics.
The use of VR for therapeutic purposes is not only limited to adults; there have been studies showing that VR can be used as a therapeutic tool with children as well to improve cognitive ability and motor skills. This could be because they are immersed in an environment where they are free from distractions and can focus on the task at hand—which makes them more receptive to learning new things.
With VR headsets becoming more accessible and affordable (Apple will be releasing theirs towards the end of 2023), it’s likely that therapy assisted by VR will become more common place in the coming years.
2023 will no doubt see the integration of dictation and transcription tools added to video software for healthcare professionals. Digital tools for transcribing therapy sessions have been around for a while, but they haven't always been very good! The problem is that when you're trying to transcribe speech into text, there are all kinds of things that can go wrong: words and phrases may be missed or misinterpreted because they were spoken too quickly or with an accent.
The next generation of digital tools are smarter and better, with the ability to capture more nuanced elements of the conversation; and with the help of machine learning and Natural Language Processing (NPL), will be able to pick up on the intonations and inflections that are unique to individual speakers.
Imagine being able to conduct a therapy session where it’s no longer necessary to take manual notes, and where your attention can be fully on your conversation with your patient. It really isn’t far off.
Consumer Medical devices
Wearable health and wellness tracking devices have been around for some time – the first Fitbit was released in 2009 and Apple launched their first smart watch in 2015. But as the technology advances, consumer medical devices that would previously have only been available in the doctor’s office, are becoming more sophisticated and affordable.
For example, instead of just tracking steps or heart rate, devices are able to track more complex data like your sleep cycles, metabolism, and fluctuations in heart rate and body temperature. This kind of real-time data can be incredibly useful for people who are trying to improve their overall health, or track a particular medical issue.
So how does this relate to therapy?
Imagine being able to monitor your patient’s anxiety levels over the course of a week based on their heart-rate and body temperature, and connect it with certain triggers.
Patients can come to sessions equipped with this information to hand. Similarly, while treating a patient for depression, it could be useful to monitor progress by looking at changes and improvements in sleep quality based on real-time data.
And it doesn’t end there; the next generation of consumer wearables will be able to track the nuances of mood and emotion, and they’re already on the market (take a look at Upmood.com)!
Technology will never replace the need to human to human interaction in therapy, nor should we be aiming for it to. But the right tech tools can make your job as a therapist easier – from note dictation, to data led progress monitoring, and by providing tools to deliver the most effective treatment to your patients.
 Yuan, S. N. V., & Ip, H. H. S. (2018). Using virtual reality to train emotional and social skills in children with autism spectrum disorder. London journal of primary care, 10(4), 110–112. https://doi.org/10.1080/17571472.2018.1483000  Corno, G., & Bouchard, S. (2015). An innovative positive psychology VR application for victims of sexual violence: A qualitative study. In P. Cipresso & S. Serino (Eds.), Virtual reality: Technologies, medical applications and challenges (pp. 229–267). Nova Science Publishers.