Leveraging virtual reality to manage pain in paediatric patients

A new study underway through Lawson Health Research Institute and Children’s Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC), using virtual reality (VR) to help pediatric patients during painful and distressing procedures.

“Technology holds immense potential for improving the experience of our young patients and their families,” explains Dr. Naveen Poonai, Lawson Scientist, principal investigator and Emergency Department Physician at Children’s Hospital. “VR is becoming increasingly popular amongst young people and some early research shows VR has been helpful in painful procedures, even in adults.”

Dr. Naveen Poonai with the VR device
Dr. Naveen Poonai holding the virtual reality headset

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.

“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.” 

The study team is recruiting 90 pediatric patients with existing medical ports.  Participants will be randomized into three groups.  One group will be using a VR headset that will allow them to play interactive games. The second group will have access to tablet technology, and the final group will be provided with non-technology distractions. Each procedure and the patient’s response will be recorded. Responses will then be compared using a tool called the ‘Observational Scale of Behavioral Distress’ to determine which intervention leads to the best outcomes.  

Dr. Naveen Poonai and VR patient

“My hopes are that we develop a variety of skills we can tailor to patients,” adds Dr. 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 study is expected to be completed by the end of this year. The research team is already collaborating with Children’s Hospital staff and leadership to use VR as a clinical tool if the study proves the technology to be effective.

“We have plans in place to allow whatever we find as the best option to be part of routine care for kids needing port access,” notes Dr. Poonai. “We are also speaking with various medical teams to determine how we can incorporate this into practices across the hospital.”

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

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Celine Zadorsky

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Lawson Health Research Institute
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