Tell a child they need to undergo another painful medical procedure, and you'll probably have a kid who's racked with fear and anxiety. Tell that same child they'll have a chance to zap flying cheeseburgers in outer space while their doctor works on them, and they might feel a little different.
That night-and-day difference in how kids respond to the pricks and prodding of their doctors is the reason for Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford's groundbreaking use of virtual reality technology. As one of the first hospitals in the country to implement distraction-based VR therapy in every patient unit, Packard Children's lets kids participate in fun and relaxing immersive experiences that can significantly reduce their anxiety — and even their pain.
Experts have already found virtual reality has a major impact on kids' stress levels. "VR is often so unfamiliar that it is instantly engaging and incredibly distracting," Veronica Tuss, a child life specialist with the hospital's Child Life and Creative Arts Department, told Stanford Medicine News Center. "If I'm preparing a child for their very first IV, and they share with me that they don't want to see what's happening procedurally, I know I need a distraction that is visually engaging. With VR, an often-intimidating setting suddenly becomes this really cool thing or place that they get to explore. It can minimize the experience of getting the IV to the point that we may actually turn a negative experience into a positive one."
This isn't the first time Packard Children's has introduced innovative methods to ease patients' worries. In 2015, Sam Rodriguez, M.D., and Thomas Caruso, M.D., the co-founders of Packard Children's Childhood Anxiety Reduction through Innovation and Technology (CHARIOT) program, which is leading the VR rollout, introduced the Bedside Entertainment and Relaxation Theater (BERT). The system projects videos on a large screen attached to patients' gurneys so they can watch movies and music videos all the way to the operating room. Pretty cool stuff.
And in early 2017, CHARIOT launched an interactive video game called Sevo the Dragon, which projects on the BERT screen and gamifies the administration of anesthesia, so the tiniest patients have something fun to do while breathing medicine through a mask.
Caruso and Rodriguez are currently collaborating with Silicon Valley-based software engineers to create original VR content that's specifically tailored to pediatric patients. Spaceburgers, the duo's first game, was developed in collaboration with Juno VR, and it allows the kids to listen to relaxing music as they fly through outer space and zap objects.
Researchers are now investigating how much of an impact VR actually has on pain and anxiety levels during certain procedures, and so far, the results are promising. Kids who are engaged with VR tend to be more cooperative, less fearful and experience less pain during procedures like blood draws.
VR distraction therapy is being used for kids at Packard Children's as young as age 6 in specific areas like the emergency department, but the tool will be rolled out to all of the hospital's acute care floor units and Stanford Children's Health's ambulatory surgery clinics by the end of 2017, and it will even make a debut in the labor and delivery unit.
"Children shouldn't grow up being afraid to go to the doctor to have a shot, but certain experiences can cause phobias that last into adulthood. Needle phobia is a common example of that, and it's the primary reason adults avoid important immunizations like flu shots," Caruso told Stanford Medicine News Center. "Now, when patients get a shot while they are wearing VR goggles, they are reporting only limited levels of pain, if any."