• Article
  • August 22, 2018

Virtual Reality Helps Reduce Patient Anxiety During Clinical Interventions

Technology can help distract patients in the medical setting.

Olivia, a patient at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, uses virtual reality during infusion therapy. Photo by Callan Henrich.
Olivia, a patient at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, uses virtual reality during infusion therapy. Photo by Callan Henrich.

The hospital can be a scary place for anyone, especially a child. And no matter how nice the staff is or how thoughtfully the clinical spaces are designed, it can be difficult for a patient to forget they're in the hospital. A new initiative at Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, Minnesota, is working to help put patients at ease.

In the summer of 2017, researchers working in collaboration with Gillette's Integrative Care Committee received two virtual reality (VR) headsets on loan from appliedVR, a Los Angeles-based technology company that designs VR goggles specifically for use in a medical setting. The software provided by appliedVR allows patients to access over 20 different interactive content modules.

Child life specialists at Gillette began offering headsets to patients during clinical interventions, and they saw the positive effect of VR almost immediately.

"It's our goal to make patient care as painless and anxiety-free as possible, so we're always looking for new methods and treatments that could be practically applied in clinic," says Chantel Barney, Ph.D., a clinical scientist involved with the VR initiative at Gillette. "VR is a relatively new field when it comes to medicine, but the use of VR in certain settings has been shown to reduce pain and anxiety when compared to the traditional standards of care, and we've already seen those results in our use of VR at Gillette."

VR is not just for entertainment

Olivia Curtis, 13, began coming to Gillette when she was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) at age 4. At age 9, Olivia began receiving infusions of Remicade to help mitigate her condition, and unfortunately, her first experience with the infusions didn't go well.

"It wasn't anyone's fault, they just had trouble finding a good vein for the infusion," says Jennifer Walton, Olivia's mother. "Unfortunately, her first impression was difficult to shake. Every time we went in for a subsequent infusion, you could see Olivia's fear and anxiety ramping up, and the whole process became more difficult."

Jennifer says as Olivia got older things improved, but the infusions were still arduous at times. Luckily, the VR pilot program at Gillette began, and a child life specialist brought a headset to Olivia's next infusion appointment.

"We had decent success with iPads and other methods of distraction, but the change with VR was remarkable," Jennifer says. "It was like it allowed Olivia to step out of the hospital for a little while. That first time was by far the most pleasant infusion she ever had, so at that point we were sold."

Expanding the VR program

While VR has been shown to be effective in situations like that of Olivia's, Todd Dalberg, D.O., medical director of Integrative and Palliative Care and physician lead of the VR program at Gillette says the practical applications of therapeutic VR could be even more far-reaching.

"Overall, it's our goal to improve outcomes and maximize benefits for patients with the least amount of harm," Dalberg says. "What makes VR compelling as an integrative modality is there's all the potential for benefit, and very little chance for harm."

Dalberg says one of the main reasons providers use integrative therapies is largely rooted in attempting to reduce the adverse side effects from sedative medications and opioids, and technology like VR has already shown the capacity to capture the attention of patients. "This allows them to more fully participate in therapies, as well as tolerate procedures to a greater extent," he says. "When a child is calm, the feeling is contagious and allows for better quality of care for everyone involved."

Spurred on by the successful implementation of the VR pilot program, Gillette has expanded the number of VR kits on its main campus to 14 headsets, making it one of the largest pediatric VR initiatives in Minnesota. Barney and her team are also in the early stages of researching the use of VR in a pediatric setting.

Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.