Virtual reality (VR) is gaining ground as the technologies needed to support VR applications evolve. From immersive video games to military training exercises and new product design, virtual solutions are making very real inroads.1
When it comes to healthcare, meanwhile, adoption has been slower — healthcare VR adoption has largely focused on visualization patients’ internal anatomy to provide better diagnoses or improve surgical accuracy.2 Recent research, however, suggests another option: virtual reality for patients to help manage their pain. This approach offers significant potential benefits in hospice applications. Here’s a look at how VR can help ease pain for hospice patients.
Bridging the Reality Gap: How VR Works
The goal of virtual reality is to create an experience that our brains accept as “real.” To accomplish this task, VR technologies typically combine a headset that provides seemingly 3D images and positional sounds combined with accurate head and arm tracking to provide users the freedom of exploring virtual worlds.
Experiences in VR range from the observant to the interactive — users may choose to explore a real place on Earth they’ve never visited, or interact with virtual elements by making specific gestures, taking certain actions, or even breathing in particular ways.
Understanding the Role of VR in Healthcare
As noted above, virtual reality is already used in healthcare to help clinicians improve patient outcomes. Recent research, however, has uncovered another application for VR: pain management.3 Consider work at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, which began a substantive VR rollout just as COVID-19 hit. Patients unable to have visitors but with access to VR experiences reported significant reductions in pain, with some comparing to the level of relief given by morphine and similar medications.4
It makes sense: The distraction of having something to focus on other than their current circumstances can help take patients’ minds off their pain. MRI scans back up this subjective supposition. Scans taken before and after VR use showed that areas of the brain responsive to pain were less active during the treatment.5
Applications for Healthcare VR in Hospice
In hospice, VR offers the potential to help improve patients’ experience over the long term.
Pain management is part of this process: Results from a recent review of VR healthcare data found that along with acute pain management, virtual reality may also offer relief for chronic pain conditions.6 By allowing patients to experience the interactive environments of their choice, they’re afforded a new avenue to help cope with ongoing discomfort.
VR in hospice also offers potential social and spiritual benefits. For example, virtual reality scenarios could allow patients to connect with their friends or loved ones at a distance if visitation isn’t possible due to medical concerns or public health conditions. In the case of patients nearing the end of life, meanwhile, virtual reality could be used to let them visit places in the world they always planned to see, or even travel back in time to revisit the neighborhoods where they grew up, in turn providing a measure of closure they might otherwise lack.
From delivering pain management to improving patient comfort and providing personal closure, healthcare virtual reality offers real benefits for hospice providers.
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1 Futurism, “The U.S. Army Is Using Virtual Reality Combat to Train Soldiers,” March 22, 2019.
2 CNBC, “The First Metaverse Experiments? Look to What’s Already Happening in Medicine,” December 4, 2021.
3 Cedars Sinai, “Cedars-Sinai Study Finds Virtual Reality Therapy Helps Decrease Pain in Hospitalized Patients,” March 29, 2017.
4 – 5 Forbes, “Virtual Reality Emerging As Effective Pain Management Tool,” May 26, 2020.
6 National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), “Virtual Reality as an Analgesic for Acute and Chronic Pain in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” July 3, 2019.