London, Ont. researchers study use of virtual reality to help young patients manage pain

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 manage painful procedures. Lawson Health Research Institute

A new study through Lawson Health Research Institute and the Children’s Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre could help young patients manage painful procedures with the help of virtual reality.

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Researchers say the study is focused on pediatric patients who need port access — “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, an associate scientist at Lawson and a pediatric oncologist at Children’s Hospital. “Minimizing the stress, anxiety, and pain of the procedure is key to avoiding a negative experience.”

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The study team will start by recruiting 90 pediatric patients with existing ports as participants will be randomized into three different 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, researchers said.

Responses will be compared to determine which group had the best outcomes in minimizing procedure-related distress.

“A lot of kids are afraid of needles and afraid of pain,” Zorzi said. “As a pediatric oncologist, unfortunately, painful procedures are quite routine as part of children’s therapy.”

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She hopes that the study will develop a variety of skills that can later be tailored to patients.

“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,” Zorzi added.

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The research team is currently collaborating with Children’s Hospital staff to use virtual reality or “VR” as a clinical tool if the technology proves to be effective through the study.

“Technology holds immense potential for improving the experience of our young patients and their families,” explained 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.”

Zorzi added that for parents of pediatric patients, this study could additionally help alleviate their stress as well.

“They are the primary support person for their child, and to see procedures go poorly, where their child is very upset, crying, tensioning, those kinds of things can be very distressing for the parent,” she said.

Poonai noted that they are speaking with various medical teams to determine how this study could be incorporated across other practices throughout the hospital.

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“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,” he said.

The study is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

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