The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 30 strokes occur worldwide every minute. In Germany alone around 450,000 people suffer strokes every year due to various causes (Rehago). Those who survive a cerebral infarction usually face years of rehabilitation to relearn skills such as language and movement. Although there are various therapy offers, health insurance usually limits coverage for sessions to half an hour per week.
Conventional Therapy Rethought
Mirror therapy is used for half-paralysed patients. The patient sits in front of a mirror and moves his healthy arm, while the paralysed arm is hidden. This type of exercise tricks the brain that the paralysed arm is moving normally again. This illusion creates new connections and activates centres in the damaged areas of the brain. Exercises like these are also easy to do at home without a doctor, but they are not very exciting.
The Reutlinger Startup Rehago wants to tackle this problem and the lack of motivation to perform these important exercises on a regular basis. The founders have developed an app that transfers mirror therapy to VR games. Using VR glasses and the Rehago app, patients can carry out the exercises regardless of their location – for example in their own four walls. In VR, full immersion in the game world can create the same illusion as sitting in front of a mirror. Through the games, the founders hope to create a greater incentive to actually perform the exercises.
VR in Medicine
Many consider VR to have great potential within medicine. Anika Ochsenfahrt, COO of Rehago, confirmed in our interview: ‘There is so much potential for medicine in VR. It should be used more.’ Clinical trials show positive effects for a wide range of patients. Since the treatment does not involve drugs, approvals are much easier when compared with costly and lengthy drug testing. The fields of application of VR and augmented reality in medicine spans a wide range. Professionals use it for surgery preparation and human anatomy education, while patients can access pain management and therapy, like Rehago.
By 2017, Markets and Markets reported that the VR healthcare market had grown to $976 million from $525 million in 2012. And, according to Grand View Research, the VR and Augmented Reality (AR) healthcare industry want to be $5.1 billion by 2025. But before the medical field can fully adopt VR-glasses, a lot still has to happen. As Anika Ochsenfahrt also explains: “the covers that are attached to the face should be easier removable and cleanable. Most of the VR-glasses have fabric inside, which is not very hygienic.” Of course, the VR-glasses have to be mobile as well, requiring no additional hardware to operate. However, with many of the mobile solutions such as Samsung Gear, the sensors are still expandable and not as accurate as with VR glasses connect to a computer with a cable.
Why did the Founders Invent Rehago?
The beginnings of Rehago go back three years: The other founders Philipp Zajac and Johannes Höfener took part in a study project at the University Hospital of Tübingen. The computer science students received three keywords to use: Virtual reality, stroke and brain-computer interface. This led to Rehago. Shortly after its foundation, the founders were able to convince Samsung, which promotes young start-ups from the field of social entrepreneurship with its “Life’s a Pitch” program.
For financing, the startup uses a subscription model. The patient has to pay 30 euros per month for the app and 230 euros for the Oculus Go. Rehago cooperates with the technology rental company Grover so that patients can also rent the hardware.
In the future, the startup hopes that health insurance companies will cover the costs for their therapy, but although there have already been discussions, the large insurance companies are still quite slow in implementing innovative solutions. The approval procedure is very strict and complicated. The Rehago team is currently working on an approval according to the Medical Device Regulation (MDR). Before that users can implement the software effectively as a wellness or training product.