A new VR app enables patients to
experience MR procedures anywhere and
may help reduce associated claustrophobia

New VR app may ease MR anxiety

December 10, 2018
by Thomas Dworetzky, Contributing Reporter
MR is a great tool, but the need to stay still in a tight space for a relatively long time can make it a challenge for some patients.

Now, a new virtual reality application developed by the University of Michigan's department of radiology and the Duderstadt Center’s Emerging Technologies Group lets those awaiting a scan “experience” the procedure anywhere – and in the process, helps them prepare in advance to ease tension and reduce fears.

“The app allows patients to fully experience the sensation of being inside of a scanner,” Daniel Fessahazion, associate director of the Emerging Technologies Group, said in a UM report on the application. “As a patient turns their head or moves their body, they can see the room around them while the system detects their motion and provides them with the illusion that they are inside the MR.”

The researchers observed that there is often a need for such desensitization after having to stop scans prematurely for about 1.6 percent of patients due to claustrophobia or discomfort, finding that a significant proportion required conscious sedation to undergo the entire scanning procedure, according to their report in the journal, Tomography.

They also noted that nurse-assisted conscious sedation could range from 3.8 percent to as much as 14.3 percent of procedures in some institutions.

“The goal is to decrease [the patient's] anxiety about the procedure,” said Dr. Richard K.J. Brown, a professor of radiology at the University of Michigan, and project leader.

Using the application can transform an area in one’s home into a virtual MR scanning room, complete with sounds of the device recorded on-site during a real-life simulation in order to make the experience as lifelike as possible.

The developers also utilized programming tools to create video games to help patients understand scanning protocols in a fun way. In addition to reducing anxiety around procedures, the hope is that the app will help to cut down the need for sedation.

“We have a diverse patient population here at Michigan Medicine, and we want to make sure that all of our patients can benefit from the technology we create,” Brown explained, adding that “our team would like to eventually create versions of this tool in several languages, ensuring that all of our patients can benefit from this cutting-edge technology. The future use of this app opens a lot of doors.”

VR is making inroads into the healthcare sector in number of ways – and not just to ease patient fears.

In April, at the Society of Interventional Radiology annual meeting, researchers unveiled an interactive virtual reality technology that helps radiologists better plan splenic artery aneurysm repair.

Dr. Zlatko Devcic, interventional radiology fellow at Stanford University Medicine, explained that treating this condition can be a challenge because of the intricate anatomy and differences in each case.

“If someone has a better idea of what the anatomy looks like, then they can go into the procedure picking the right equipment to accomplish whatever they need to do,” he told HCB News at the time.

The VR software uses pre-procedural CT scans to create 3-D images that the radiologist can virtually manipulate while wearing special glasses, giving them a better feel for the spatial relationships between aneurysms and the surrounding arteries.

A small study showed that the approach was as accurate as standard visualization software in the assessment of 17 splenic artery aneurysms in 14 patients, but 93 percent of radiologists who used VR reported higher confidence in their abilities.

“If they have a better idea of what they are doing, hopefully, the procedure will take less time,” said Devcic. “If there is less procedure time involved, then there will be less radiation involved as well to the patient and the operator.”