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Using VR to make hospital visits less scary

Auckland District Health Board and Staples VR have been developing VR experiences to help make hospital visits less scary for kids.

In short, the tech helps young patients prepare for their hospital visit through virtual preparation experiences in radiation therapy, theatre (pre-operation to recovery), MRIs, CT scans, and X-Rays. The project aims to improve the overall hospital experience for kids, and possible reduce a need to prescribe anti-anxiety medication.

Auckland DHB clinical director, Starship Radiology Dr Sally Vogel certainly thinks it has potential. “Some young patients require dozens of procedures and the headsets allow them to explore the surgical or radiology environment with a nurse, ask questions and direct their own learning,” she explains. “This is early days and we’ll require clinical trials to build an evidence base, but the VR experience is full of promise. It holds several possibilities, including of avoiding some general anaesthesia or sedation and increasing the participation of patients and whanau in their own care.”

The VR experience is a ‘journey’ through a hospital procedure with a robot child, who also needs the same procedure done. Together, they are introduced to doctors, nurses, the medical equipment they’ll see, and sounds they will experience on the day they are in the hospital. The child’s reactions, and their ability to follow instructions such as ‘stay still’ and ‘hold your breath’, help the clinical teams determine whether sedation or general anaesthetic will be required during the real procedure. Parents and whānau of patients are also encouraged to go through the VR experience.

Staples VR used the process of photogrammetry to map rooms at Starship and Auckland City hospitals into five VR experiences. These are viewed through an HTC Vive headset for non-acute patients, and a Samsung Gear set for acute patients.

“We were given access to areas that are rarely captured, and these spaces are special and unique to Starship and Auckland City hospitals,” explains Staples VR game developer Krystal Thompson. “Having cinematographers, game developers and hospital staff on set together capturing the room, effectively allowed us to not only re-create the room, but also we had the ability to include the finer sentimental details, like posters on the walls and toys on the shelves.”

James Edgar, director of information management strategy at Auckland DHB, is also a big fan. “Virtual Reality technologies allow anyone, to be anywhere, with anything, at any time,’ he says. “Yesterday the idea of having a linear accelerator that children could practice in was unfathomable in public health services, but tomorrow that will be reality… it’s truly amazing.”

Staples VR director, Aliesha Staples, says “I’m excited to be a part of a project that links the latest VR technology with practical medical application, and that ultimately helps children cope better with their treatment.”

HP and Vodafone partnered on the project, sourcing the VR hardware powering the experiences. Staples also operates out of the AR/VR Garage, the collaborative R&D facility established Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) last year to fuel talent, capabilities and innovation in the creative tech sector.

Dean Butchers, ATEED General Manager Business Attraction & Investment, says: “ATEED is delighted to see Staples VR creating this life-changing product for ill children, which is another example of how the company is creating virtual experiences which have tremendous social value. Staples VR’s recent successes are a perfect example of why ATEED is supporting this growing industry through its investment in the AR/VR Garage on behalf of council.”