The social isolation and loneliness that may accompany many chronic health conditions in the elderly is not easily addressed by healthcare providers. However, one Bay Area-startup is seeking to change that: in yet another innovative use of virtual reality (VR) technology, a physician has launched a startup using VR for managing patient loneliness. Called One Caring Team, and founded by Dr. Sonya Kim, an ED physician, the startup strives to alleviate social isolation, especially for senior patients.

Originally, the program began by offering emotional support through phone calls gearing to build a one-on-one relationship with clients and their “trained listeners.” However, the social and emotional support of patients with dementia and neurological disorders could not be easily met since they could not find a realistic way to participate in phone calls. By utilizing virtual reality, patients could take part in a scenic environment or entertaining adventures, offering a virtual escape from the isolation and loneliness that may be a part of chronic, debilitating medical conditions. Their current VR experience, called AlohaVR, transports patients to tropical beaches with images, music, and text.

There is little research on this fairly unexplored realm of virtual reality therapy in healthcare. While we’ve seen VR used in areas like pain management and rehabilitative therapy, its use as a tool for improving a patient’s quality of life through a virtual vacation is rather unique. It’s clearly a region that has considerable promise, given the immersive nature of today’s VR experiences, even through a simple smartphone setup such as Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear. Loneliness has been recognized as a predictor for a patient’s potential functional decline, leading to detrimental health effects, and death. Incorporating virtual reality can pave the way to lessen the presence of loneliness in patients, young and old, and is an exciting new frontier for VR tech.