VR tech study aims to help children during painful medical procedures

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A new study spearheaded by London, Ont.’s Lawson Research Institute and Children’s Hospital is using virtual reality (VR) technology to help its smallest patients during distressing and painful procedures.

According to a press released issued by London Health Sciences Centre’s (LHSC) Lawson Health Research Institute and Children’s Hospital, the study – which is currently underway – recruited 90 paediatric patients and randomized them into three groups.

“The study is focusing on pediatric patients who need port access. A port is a little reservoir that sits underneath the skin that allows access to blood or medication with the use of a needle. Ports are most commonly used in pediatric cancer patients,” the release says. 

One group will use a VR headset that allows them to play interactive games. The second group will have access to tablet technology, while the third group will be provided with non-technological distractions.

During each procedure, the patient’s response will be recorded, and then compared using a tool called the “Observational Scale of Behavioral Distress” to determine which intervention method led to the best outcome.

A virtual reality headset, which researchers at Lawson Health Research Institute plan to test on pediatric patients to help them feel more comfortable during painful procedures. (Source: Lawson Health Research Institute)

“This can be very distressing for a patient and it can set the tone for their entire clinic day and course of treatment,” says Dr. Alexandra Zorzi, Lawson associate scientist and pediatric oncologist at Children’s Hospital. “Minimizing the stress, anxiety, and pain of the procedure is key to avoiding a negative experience.”

For Dr. Naveen Poonai, Lawson scientist, principal investigator and emergency department physician at Children’s Hospital, this technology is the way of the future.

“Technology holds immense potential for improving the experience of our young patients and their families,” explains Poonai. “VR is becoming increasingly popular amongst young people and some early research shows VR has been helpful in painful procedures, even in adults.”

The study is expected to be completed by the end of 2022, and the research team is already in talks with Children’s Hospital staff and leadership to use VR as a clinical tool if the study can prove the technology is effective for its paediatric patients.

“My hopes are that we develop a variety of skills we can tailor to patients,” adds Zorzi. “There are patients who receive all kinds of support but still struggle, so having a variety of techniques available to see what works best is a positive step forward.”

The use of the VR devices was made possible with support from the Children’s Health Foundation. 

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