VR games can ease kids’ fear of scary hospital procedures

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Playing games using virtual reality headsets can help children cope with having to go through a painful medical procedure at the hospital, according to a new study.

Medical procedures such as a venipuncture—the penetrating of a vein for a procedure such as drawing blood or inserting an intravenous tube—may make a young patient anxious or uneasy. Many hospitals have a dedicated child life services team to help children cope with these procedures, while others depend on more traditional methods of diversions such as toys or books.

The new study shows virtual reality (VR) games—if they are appropriate and carefully chosen for pediatric clinical situations—may offer an engaging and practical addition to the list of distraction therapy options.

From June 2019 to March 2020, researchers randomly assigned 55 patients—ranging in age from 7 to 22 and receiving venipuncture procedures—into three groups. The first group of 15 patients, played VR games in the presence of a child life specialist. The second group, consisting of 20 patients, did not use VR but was supported by a child life specialist. The remaining 20 patients in the third group did not have a child life specialist support or VR games.

Overall, researchers found patients who played VR games during their venipuncture procedure benefitted from reduced pain and anxiety, and that the combination of VR and support from a child life specialist worked best. However, the researchers also found that children who used VR during venipunctures had significantly longer procedure times—by 4-6 minutes on average—than those who had only child life specialist support or no distraction therapy at all.

The most likely cause, the researchers say, was the nurse or technician having to repeatedly pause a game to correct a technical problem, provide guidance on game navigation or controller operation, or change a game.

“We feel that the extra time isn’t a huge detriment, because it is hard to put a value on reducing a child’s trauma during a venipuncture procedure,” says Therese Canares, director of pediatric emergency medicine digital health innovation at the Johns Hopkins University Children’s Center and assistant professor of pediatrics at the university’s School of Medicine. “Even if VR adds five minutes, making a child more comfortable is well worth it.”

The most surprising finding involved how many adolescents needed help navigating the virtual reality games, and that researchers needed to do a significant amount of “trial-and-error” to determine which games were best for distraction therapy, Canares says.

“We found that games involving little movement of the head and arms, played without high anxiety scenarios—such as military battles or zombie attacks—and not requiring a controller or extensive menu options, worked best because they added the least amount of extra time to a venipuncture procedure,” Canares says.

Hospitals considering the use of VR as distraction therapy—especially those on a tight budget—may want to look first at such ‘clinically friendly games’ before making the investment.”

Although VR coupled with child life specialist support appears to be an excellent distraction therapy, “it isn’t meant to replace child life professionals since games cannot take the place of human touch and compassion,” Canares says. However, she says, VR may be a solid option for community hospitals that don’t have a child life services team.

The paper appears in the journal Hospital Pediatrics.

Source: Rachel Hackam for Johns Hopkins University