Here we have a compelling concept — a virtual reality headset with a huge range of combat and military deployment imagery that could help military veterans overcome post-traumatic stress disorder. Exposure therapy has been shown to be effective in PTSD and the high-tech gaming system described here sounds cool and may well be a logical extension of exposure therapy techniques.
However, just because an intervention sounds good, doesn’t mean it works. After reading this article, there’s no way to tell whether this intervention helps a majority of patients nor if it’s better than current therapies. (Readers do learn that providers — therapist and military hospitals — are buying the technology. Indeed one of the few hard numbers in the article claims that more than 100 sites, particularly military bases, are using the system.)
Readers are led to believe the intervention works from the headline: “These VR Systems Help Treat Veterans Recovering From PTSD.” And yet, the lack of data in the story doesn’t support such a claim.
Military veterans experience PTSD at higher rates than the general public; estimates are 11-20% in a given year for Iraq war veterans and about 30% in the lifetime of Vietnam vets, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. The symptoms, such as nightmares, flashbacks, anger and irritability, and a feeling of constantly being on guard, can interfere with daily activities, work, and relationships. Some people are not helped by the current suite of clinical treatments, which can mean chronic disability and distress.
There is clearly a need for new modalities of treatment for this difficult condition, and therefore news stories have a duty to discuss the evidence for and against them–this story didn’t do so.
The article indicates that VR systems cost about $5,000, but that’s for a clinic or hospital to buy them. It’s not clear what the cost to patients would be — for instance is VR system use included in the price of therapy sessions with a psychologist?
The article claims that “participants’ stress symptoms, including depression, decrease by as much as 80 percent.” But that’s all the data we’re provided, and many details are missing: What are the other stress symptoms were measured besides depression? Did all measured symptoms improve and by how much? How many ex-soldiers see the 80% improvement? How did they measure the symptoms?
There is some explanation about the specifics of the virtual reality imagery — it’s real but not too real, with the goal of avoiding further trauma. And yet, the reader is left wondering if some patients are indeed further traumatized by the images, and if so, how often that happens. This needed to be addressed more thoroughly.
How many people have undergone a course of treatment with this virtual reality system? Have any clinical studies been conducted? Was sufficient attention given to designing a study with a control/placebo scenario?
It is impossible to know whether the claims of benefit have any basis whatsoever; this is a major weak point in the story.
The article does not engage in disease mongering. The reporter provides some data on PTSD in veterans — in any given year, 1 in 5 soldiers from the ongoing war in Iraq suffer long-lasting effects from their deployments.
The article relies heavily on the developer of the VR system. It also quotes one therapist who uses the VR system and one patient who benefitted from it. We think it’s crucial to recruit an outside voice who can comment on the rationale, evidence of benefit, or potential risks of adopting this particular therapy.
The article mentions traditional or conventional therapy, but doesn’t describe what that looks like — talk therapy, medications, exposure therapy? Something else? The reader may not have knowledge of what conventional therapy entails, nor whether it might be different for veterans. Further, there’s no comparison of either the rate or degree of benefit that veterans might experience with the differing types of therapy.
The article makes clear that the VR system is available at many military bases and hospitals and that its availability is growing.
The article makes the VR system sound novel, but there’s little detail on how VR headset imagery differs from other exposure therapy. Lots of detail about the VR images — real, but not too real, blood and guts are add-ons — but little comparison with what other options may or may not exist, either in the clinic or in the research laboratory.
The story does not appear to rely on a news release.