Lode Sabbe, opportunities and challenges with XR in healthcare

“People are starting to understand the technology to a certain extent and start seeing the potential applications, but the integration is still quite slow.

Ever since the beginning of his career, Lode Sabbe, occupational therapist at Ghent University Hospital and applied researcher in XR technology, has applied new technologies in his work. His work environment naturally lends itself ideally to this; UZ Gent is one of the largest hospitals in Belgium and an important university training center for both medical and non-medical disciplines. The UZG also has a very large multidisciplinary rehabilitation team with more than 125 physical therapists and some 60 occupational therapists. Every day, this team treats patients in very acute – i.e., high and intensive care – and semi-acute departments, including the neurolocomotor rehabilitation center, in geriatrics and in psychiatry.

Sabbe’s main interest is in the use of robotics and sensor-based and Extended Reality technology, or XR. In that context, he and pediatric rehabilitation physician and colleague Ruth Van der Looven launched the hospital-wide platform Smart Space in 2019. Key components of that platform include innovative XR technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). The platform aims to intertwine clinical care, practice-relevant research and product development. “As an occupational therapist, I always look for a functional perspective when using technology; not only from the patient’s point of view, but certainly from the therapist’s,” Sabbe said.

Slow integration of technology

With the SIOPA Project and XRehab, Sabbe delved even deeper into the world of XR. SIOPA stands for Smart Immersive Occupational Performance Assessments and involves project-based scientific research conducted by four partners of the Hogeschool West-Vlaanderen: Human Interface Technology lab (HITlab), Department of Occupational Therapy (ERGO), Department of Multimedia and Communication (MCT) and Department of Digital Arts and Entertainment (DAE). XRehab is a network that aims to achieve the integration of XR applications by linking end users such as hospitals, therapists and patients and Belgian companies in the gaming and tech sectors.

“This cross-pollination is important for our healthcare landscape. Indeed, compared to other sectors such as education and industry, in terms of the development and use of XR in healthcare, there is still a lot of missionary work to be done. People are starting to understand the technology somewhat and see the potential applications, but integration is still quite slow,” Sabbe believes. To accelerate XR adoption, he has signed UZG up for XR Valley, a project that aims to maximize the number of XR specialists in the region by retaining local talent and attracting foreign talent. “What is very important in most initiatives is bringing together the right people with the right expertise at the right time. Getting to know the expertise and needs and developing a clinically useful tool from there is one of the greatest professional experiences I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing. With all the projects and platforms we participate in as UZG employees and in a personal capacity, we play quite a prominent role in that,” Sabbe says with appropriate pride.

“In terms of development and use of XR in healthcare, there is still a lot of missionary work to be done.”

Lots of potential in VR

Because as an occupational therapist, Sabbe logically has a more than average affinity for mobility and flexibility, he also decided to focus on new innovative developments in that field. This is how he came into contact with the founders of inMotion VR. Sabbe explains, “From the beginning, the click was there. From the beginning, my colleagues and I were involved in the development of new applications and provided feedback on possible improvements to the hardware and software.” One of inMotion VR’s XR solutions is Corpus VR, a solution that combines gamification with smart sensors and provides complete exercise environments for simple to complex complaints within the focus areas of physical, ergo and neurotherapy.

“The future prospects for this type of mobile application are obviously very great,” Sabbe points out. “Partly because healthcare is going to be increasingly demand-driven rather than supply-driven; due to the increasing aging population and shrinking government budgets, we have no choice but to make healthcare smarter, faster and better if we want to continue to provide all people with the care they serve. With VR solutions, treatment pathways can be much better tailored to the patient, and a platform like Corpus VR, for example, offers new opportunities for home rehabilitation. Saving both the patient and the therapist time and providing real-time data that can be directly applied to give the treatment the right tweaks.”

Corpus VR’s innovative philosophy is in line with Sabbe’s. “Because I work In a university setting, it is almost an obligation to apply innovative techniques in treatments,” he says. Like Sabbe, Corpus VR has a strong focus on research-based innovation. Measurements with and data from treatment sessions with the Corpus VR solution are often used for scientific studies. With the ultimate goal of providing patients with even better treatments. “I am convinced that the use of technology, despite limited manpower, can significantly improve the quality of treatment. We see the examples every day in our workplace,” Sabbe points out.

“The technology is there, now we need to get the necessary adjustments at the policy level and the train is off.”

Future vision of XR solutions

About the developments of XR technologies in healthcare, Sabbe is somewhat reserved. True, he sees that the topic of technology is now structurally embedded in educational curricula, so there is less fear among therapists about using XR technology in practice. But for further rollout of VR and AR in healthcare, he says, policy and technology need to be better aligned. Once the technologies are embraced, however, Sabbe foresees many benefits for both patients and therapists. And even for the climate and society. The more efficient and personalized treatment pathways, easier social contact and promotion of therapy compliance are obvious benefits. “But as the increasing concentration of specializations in health care makes the average travel distances and times for patients longer, the possibility of home therapy will actually push them back. With all its environmental benefits.”

It is with great curiosity that Sabbe watches the development of quantum computing and its applications in healthcare. “I do not foresee any real new revolution in the field of AI in the short term, but it is clear that the range of new clinically useful applications in healthcare will increase in the coming years.” To anyone considering using XR, Sabbe would like to add the following “Don’t be put off by XR technology, just go with it. Use it in a creative way to give your patients but also your colleagues the highest quality options and resources for therapy.”

“Don’t be intimidated by XR technology, just start using it.”