Virtual Reality is Making Medical Care for Kids Less Scary and Painful

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A patient at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (Courtesy of Children's Hospital Los Angeles) plus Bear Blast, developed by AppliedVR.

A blood draw is not normally a fun experience, but these days, virtual reality technology is changing that.

Instead of watching a needle go into his arm, a child wearing a VR headset at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles can play a game throwing balls at cartoon bears. In Seattle, at the University of Washington, a burn patient can immerse herself in a soothing snow scene. And at the University of Miami Hospital, a five-minute skin biopsy can become an exciting ride at an amusement park.  

VR is transforming once-frightening medical encounters for kids, from blood draws to biopsies to pre-surgical prep, into tolerable ones.

It’s literally a game changer, says pediatric neurosurgeon Kurtis Auguste, who uses the tool to help explain pending operations to his young patients and their families. The virtual reality 3-D portrait of their brain is recreated from an MRI, originally to help plan the surgery. The image of normally bland tissue is painted with false colors to better see the boundaries and anomalies of each component. It can be rotated, viewed from every possible angle, zoomed in and out; incisions can be made and likely results anticipated. Auguste has extended its use to patients and families.  

“The moment you put these headsets on the kids, we immediately have a link, because honestly, this is how they communicate with each other,” says Auguste. “We’re all sitting around the table playing games. It’s really bridged the distance between me, the pediatric specialist, and my patients” at the Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, now affiliated with the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. 

The VR experience engages people where they are, immersing them in the environment rather than lecturing them. And it seems to work in all environments, across age and cultural differences, leading to a better grasp of what will be undertaken. That understanding is crucial to meaningful informed consent for surgery. It is particularly relevant for safety-net hospitals, which includes most children’s hospitals, because often members of the families were born elsewhere and may have limited understanding of English, not to mention advanced medicine.

Targeting pain

“We’re trying to target ways that we can decrease pain, anxiety, fear – what people usually experience as a function of a needle,” says Jeffrey Gold, a pioneer in adapting VR at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. He ran the pain clinic there and in 2004 initially focused on phlebotomy, simple blood draws. Many of their kids require frequent blood draws to monitor serious chronic conditions such as diabetes, HIV infection, sickle cell disease, and other conditions that affect the heart, liver, kidneys and other organs. 

The scientific explanation of how VR works for pain relief draws upon two basic principles of brain function. The first is “top down inhibition,” Gold explains. “We all have the inherent capacity to turn down signals once we determine that signal is no longer harmful, dangerous, hurtful, etc. That’s how our brain operates on purpose. It’s not just a distraction, it’s actually your brain stopping the pain signal at the spinal cord before it can fire all the way up to the frontal lobe.” 

Second is the analgesic effect from endorphins. “If you’re in a gaming environment, and you’re having fun and you’re laughing and giggling, you are actually releasing endorphins…a neurochemical reaction at the synaptic level of the brain,” he says. 

Part of what makes VR effective is “what’s called a cognitive load, where you have to actually learn something and do something,” says Gold. He has worked with developers on a game call Bear Blast, which has proven to be effective in a clinical trial for mitigating pain. But he emphasizes, it is not a one-size-fits all; the programs and patients need to be evaluated to understand what works best for each case. 

Gold was a bit surprised to find that VR “actually facilitates quicker blood draws,” because the staff doesn’t have to manage the kids’ anxiety, so “they require fewer needle sticks.” The kids, parents, and staff were all having a good time, “and that’s a big win when everybody is benefiting.” About two years ago the hospital made VR an option that patients can request in the phlebotomy lab, and about half of kids age 4 and older choose to do so. 

The technology “gets the kids engaged and performing the activity the way we want them to” to maximize recovery.

VR reduces or eliminates the need to use sedation or anesthesia, which carries a small but real risk of an adverse reaction. And important to parents, it eliminates the recovery time from using sedation, which shortens the visit and time missed from school and work. 

A more intriguing question is whether reducing fear and anxiety in early-life experiences with the healthcare system through activities like VR will have a long-term affect on kids’ attitudes toward medicine as they grow older. “If you’re a screaming meemie when you come get your blood draw when you’re five or seven, you’re still that anxious adolescent or adult who is all quivering and sweating and avoiding healthcare,” Gold says. “That’s a longitudinal health outcome I’d love to get my hands on in 10-15 years from now.” 

Broader applications 

Dermatologist Hadar Lev-Tov read about the use of VR to treat pain and decided to try it in his practice at the University of Miami Hospital. He thought, “OK, this is low risk, it’s easy to do. So we got some equipment and got it done.” It was so affordable he paid for it out of his own pocket, rather than wait to go through administrative channels. The results were so interesting that he decided to publish it as a series of case studies with a wide variety of patients and types of procedures.

Some of them, such as freezing off warts, are not particularly painful. “But there can be a lot of anxiety, especially for kids, which can be worse than pain and can disrupt the procedure.” It can trigger a non-rational, primal fight or flight response in the limbic region of the brain. 

Adults understand the need for a biopsy of a skin growth and tolerate what might be a momentary flick of pain. “But for a kid you think twice about a biopsy, both because it’s a hassle and because it could be a traumatic event for a child,” says Lev-Tov. VR has helped to allay such fears and improve medical care. 

Integrating VR into practice has been relatively easy, primarily focusing on simple training for staff and ensuring that standard infection control practices are used in handling equipment that is used by different patients. More mundane issues are ensuring that the play back and wi-fi equipment are functioning properly. He has had a few complaints from kids when the procedure is competed and the VR is turned off prematurely, which is why he favors programs like a roller coaster ride that lasts about five minutes, ample time to take a biopsy or two. 

The future is today

The pediatric neurosurgeon Auguste is collaborating with colleagues at Oakland Children’s to expand use of VR into different areas of care. Cancer specialists often use a port, a bubble installed under the skin in the chest of the child, to administer chemotherapy. But the young patient’s curiosity often draws their attention downward to the port and their chin can potentially contaminate or obstruct it, interfering with the procedure. So the team developed a VR game involving birds that requires players to move their heads upward, away from the port, improving administration of the drugs and reducing the risk of infection. 

Innovative use of VR just may be one tool that actually makes kids eager to visit the doctor.

Other games are being developed for rehabilitation that require the use of specific nerve and muscle combinations. The technology “gets the kids engaged and performing the activity the way we want them to” to maximize recovery, Auguste explains. “We can monitor their progress by the score on the game, and if it plateaus, maybe switch to another game.” 

Another project is trying to ease the anxiety and confusion of the patient and family experience within the hospital itself. Hospital staff are creating a personalized VR introductory walking tour that leads from the parking garage through the maze of structures and corridors in the hospital complex to Dr. Auguste’s office, phlebotomy, the MRI site, and other locations they might visit. The goal is to make them familiar with key landmarks before they even set foot in the facility. “So when they come the day of the visit they have already taken that exact same path, hopefully more than once.” 

“They don’t miss their MRI appointment and therefore they don’t miss their clinical appointment with me,” says Auguste. It reduces patient anxiety about the encounter and from the hospital’s perspective, it will reduce costs of missed and rescheduled visits simply because patients did not go to the right place at the right time. 

The VR visit will be emailed to patients ahead of time and they can watch it on a smartphone installed in a disposable cardboard viewer. Oakland Children’s hopes to have the system in place by early next year. Auguste says their goal in using VR, like other health care providers across the country, is “to streamline the entire patient experience.” 

Innovative use of VR just may be one tool that actually makes kids eager to visit the doctor. That would be a boon to kids, parents, and the health of America. 

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