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The growth of virtual reality in pediatric medicine

September 26, 2017
From the September 2017 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

Many children’s hospitals are exploring the use of VR for pain management with chemotherapy, radiation, sickle cell disease and burns.

With burns, admittedly one of the most painful conditions, patients must undergo regular wound care, dressing changes and rehabilitation activities. As noted in a report by the National Institute of Health (NIH), to control pain, physicians must often use potent narcotics, which come with the danger of increased tolerance and dependence. However, the NIH also reports that in studies of teenage burn victims, using VR helps decrease pain levels, anxiety and time spent thinking about pain. These results point to the use of VR as a drug-free supplement to traditional pain treatment, reducing the need for large doses of narcotics.

Likewise, at Benioff Children’s Hospital, researchers are looking into the use of VR for children with sickle cell disease, a particularly painful illness for children. Results are clearly positive. One young patient described VR as “a medicine that you don’t have to swallow. I’ve tried it and it’s helping me right now.”

Children about to undergo tests or procedures often experience “anticipatory anxiety,” where they dread the upcoming event because they don’t know what to expect. A pilot study at Stanford is using a VR program for “stress inoculation therapy.” Children are provided with a VR headset to use at home that gives them a virtual tour of what they will experience on the day of the procedure, familiarizing them with the hospital interior, the recovery room and the staff they will encounter.

It also allows them to practice relaxation techniques. The hope is that their knowledge of what’s to come will reduce stress and anxiety and perhaps eliminate the need for sedation prior to the event. With procedures such as MRIs, where patients must remain motionless in a closed space, VR helps children comply by allowing them to watch movies, listen to music or take advantage of VR’s other attributes. The use of VR during MRIs can also ease feelings of claustrophobia.

VR is also useful for children with autism, a mental condition characterized primarily by an impaired ability to form social relationships, communicate with others and navigate the world around them. With these children, VR has been used to simulate classrooms, so they can work on relationship building and communication in a safe environment. Ongoing studies are also exploring VR for use with PTSD, phobias, radiation therapy, stem-cell transplants, phantom limb pain, physical rehabilitation and dental care.

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