For some kids, especially those dealing with long-term illnesses, hospitals can become their second home. And as much as watching television and movies from a hospital bed can offer temporary distraction, the mediums are limited when it comes to managing pain management or providing a “connection” to the outside world. To combat this issue, many hospitals are introducing virtual reality (VR).
VR For Pain
Many pediatric hospitals are turning to VR to provide a distraction from pain and anxiety. Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) began studying the impact of VR during routine blood draws, IV placements and subsequent contrast MRIs back in 2004. As technology has progressed, so have their offerings. Currently, they use AppliedVR’s Bear Blast during blood draws.
Jeffrey I. Gold, PhD, CHLA’s director of Children’s Outcomes, Research, and Evaluation (C.O.R.E.) Program and Pediatric Pain Management Clinic tells Parentology a triangular effect occurs. “VR as an intervention means quicker throughput and more effective blood draws, which makes for happier kids, parents/caregivers and health care workers.”
Jessica Westbrooks, MS, CCLS, Child Life Specialist for the Aflac Center & Blood Disorders Outpatient Clinic at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta tells Parentology she’s witnessed VR’s influence during its two-year use in the clinic. “I’ve seen VR help children in immense pain experience relaxation and/or distraction from their pain by engaging in a VR game,” she says. “It’s especially calming for teens during uncomfortable port accesses and helps them cope with nausea when their port needs to be flushed.”
Gold says using VR as a distraction isn’t effective for all children. “Some kids are distractors who like bringing their attention elsewhere,” he explains. “Versus kids who are attenders and like paying attention, for whom VR won’t have the same impact.”
VR As Escapism
VR immerses users in different scenarios and destinations. These virtual environments allow a child to swim with dolphins, scuba dive, even engage with “friends” that seem real enough to touch.
“For a kid who’s been stuck in a hospital room for a long time,” Gold says, “VR gives them access to the outside world.” Additionally, Westbrooks says, “VR can help normalize the hospital environment by making it more fun.”
VR also provides what he terms a time-lapse effect, something particularly helpful for children undergoing chemotherapy and dialysis. “They face treatments several days a week for up to three or four hours,” Gold says. “When using VR, this can make the time seem to pass a lot faster – and hour and a half will feel like 45 minutes.”
Hospitals are also using augmented reality (AR) in their children’s wings. The Pediatric Brain Tumor Association’s Imaginary Friend Society AR app superimposes digital images over what’s seen in real life making patients feel as if they’re at a zoo or have a life-sized teddy bear by their bedside. By tapping the screen, children can get images to interact with them, such as a giraffe sharing words of encouragement before a child braves an MRI.
What’s Next for VR in Medical Settings?
The medical world is already exploring uses for VR with depression, chronic pain and substance abuse. Despite the medium’s myriad application, there are still obstacles to its use. “VR isn’t a reimbursable activity, whether it’s used in for physical or mental health,” Gold says. “If people get behind VR as useful, meaningful and efficacious, then payers might get behind it and start reimbursing its use, making it more mainstream.”
And when hearing Westbrooks say, “I’ve seen families smile for the first time in a long time because they see their child smiling while engaging in a VR game or experience.” A moment for families that’s priceless.