Research & Development
London researchers test VR to calm young patients
August 10, 2022
LONDON, Ont. – Doctors at Children’s Hospital are testing whether virtual reality can keep childhood cancer patients calm at appointments, a potential pain management strategy that could be used for other illnesses and injuries in kids. The team from Lawson Health Research Institute, the medical research arm of London’s hospitals, is recruiting 90 pediatric cancer patients, ages five to 18, for the virtual reality study that will gauge whether the technology can quell anxiety during medical procedures.
“We wanted to take a novel approach to reducing their distress by using technology to distract them,” said Dr. Naveen Poonai (pictured), an emergency room doctor at Children’s Hospital and the study’s principal investigator.
All the patients in the study have a port, a small reservoir surgically implanted under the skin that allows doctors and nurses to draw blood or administer medication. Because of the regular need for chemotherapy treatments and blood tests – sometimes multiple times a week – ports are common in pediatric cancer patients.
Since the port is completely under the skin, it requires a needle prick to get to it, something that can be uncomfortable or scary for young patients, said Alexandra Zorzi, an associate scientist at Lawson and pediatric oncologist at Children’s Hospital.
“We put topical cream on to numb the skin and minimize the poke. But children are smart and savvy, and know when they go to the hospital they’re getting a poke. There can be a lot of buildup of fear and anxiety,” she said.
One group in the study will get a virtual reality headset during their appointment while clinicians access their port. The technology simulates reality, giving patients an immersive virtual experience.
“The patients are seeing little fish swimming around in the water. They can interact with what they’re seeing.
Everything is in colour and three-dimensional. They see things coming at them and swimming by their head, a full 180 degrees of vision,” Poonai said.
Another group will get computer tablets during their port-access appointment, while the final group will be given non-technology distractions.
The research team will conduct interviews with all the parents and children in the study to get their reaction to the intervention, whether it’s the virtual reality headset, tablet or non-tech distraction.
The patients’ reactions during the appointment also will be recorded on video and evaluated for signs of distress using a standardized assessment method.
The research team already has recruited 35 patients for the study that began in May. The group is hoping to have results by early 2023 and publish its findings later next year, Zorzi said.
If the results show the virtual reality headset helped keep kids happy and calm during medical appointments, the technology could be used during other medical procedures, Poonai said.
“Virtual reality technology used to be very expensive until five to seven years ago,” he said. “If hospitals see that this works, they may be more likely to invest in this technology so that kids can use it for other painful procedures, such as intravenous starts, repairing cuts or maybe even setting bones.”