It began one day on the Ocean City boardwalk when Richard Actman, a licensed physical therapist, was watching his son play a video game.
It ended with the production of virtual-reality technology that, according to Actman, founder and president of Virtual Rehab, delivers an effective new intervention, and takes physical therapy and rehabilitation to a whole new level.
"I looked at the games my son was playing and realized that, without any devices attached to them, the games created were really a range of motion movements," explains Actman. "When I visualized the game, it immediately came to me that this technology could be used to make people better faster."
After discovering that the video game was manufactured in Canada, Actman called the company to present his initial concept to Interactive Rehabilitation and Exercise System, a Toronto-based computer and software manufacturer that expressed interest in Actman's idea.
Soon, Actman became so involved with the use of virtual reality in physical therapy that he actually made it the subject of his doctoral thesis. After earning a Ph.D. from Widener University, he launched his own center in Northeast Philadelphia.
And so began what is believed to be the first utilization of this technology in the United States, which directly integrates patients within a two-dimensional environment in which they freely interact without outside wires, sensors or monitors.
Rehab Network P.C., located at the Muscle, Bone & Joint Center, in the Northeast, is the provider of the program.
According to Actman, the process was developed for anyone with a disability - from patients with chronic back or neck pain to those with balance problems, from people with hip and knee problems to cancer and burn patients.
He points to actual studies that have been done with adult burn patients who deal daily with problems due to scar tissue: "Moving those limbs can be very painful, but patients need them to move so that the joints don't freeze up and make movement even more difficult in the future."
That's where Actman's invention comes in. The virtual-reality system has a patient stand in front of a monochromatic wall or surface. A closed-circuit video camera captures his or her image, which is transmitted to a computer-processing unit.
Patients then view themselves in a virtual environment on a television or computer monitor, and interact with virtual objects presented electronically. Because there are no external wires, sensors or monitors, a patient is free to make unrestricted movements.
At the end of the therapy session, the computer records a virtual-reality point score - similar to an electronic game - and issues a report that can be mailed to a prescribing physician. In succeeding sessions, patients will be challenged to improve their scores as they get well and closer to getting back to their regular activities.
Actman, a licensed physical therapist with some 35 years of experience, has been an entrepreneurial leader in the field, having founded and operated numerous physical-therapy companies, including Workhab, the largest managed-care physical-therapy and rehab company in the eastern United States that had eight major centers when he sold it in 1994.
'A Tough Road Ahead'
His new company, however, fills Actman with hope for the future of patients everywhere. "We are planning to establish a managed-care company utilizing the new technology for companies throughout the Delaware Valley," he says.
But make no mistake: "This new technology is not meant to replace physical therapy. It is meant to be an adjunct to it. It's just another form of exercise, biofeedback … the patient gets instant feedback.
"I know we face a tough road ahead," concludes Actman. "Therapists are traditionalists, averse to change or utilizing new ideas too quickly. So it'll be slow-going, although I am already getting calls from therapists interested in trying the program."