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Does virtual reality have a place in end of life care?

Patient using a virtual reality headset to experience a simulation for end of life care

Once only the stuff of science fiction, virtual reality is now taking the gaming industry by storm with predictions that as many as 24 million high-tech headsets will be sold in the year 2018. Now researchers and developers are asking, can virtual reality experiences have applications beyond video games? Could virtual reality be used in a medical setting or even help those who are facing their final days?

Virtual reality (often abbreviated to VR) has caused a stir in the video games industry as the cool new way to give gamers a level of immersion like never before. VR horror games make the player feel as though they are really exploring a haunted house, while rollercoaster simulators achieve a stomach-churning, adrenaline-pumping realistic effect.

However, VR has the potential to achieve much more than just exhilarating home entertainment. Even in the technology’s early stages, VR developers were thinking about how they could not just entertain people, but help them too.

Last year, a U.S. tech company called Game Start School, which creates educational games, brought some VR magic to seriously ill children at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan. The heartwarming video shows how a virtual reality experience allowed children who were too sick to leave the hospital to have all the fun and excitement of a theme park from the safety of the ward.

Medical interest in the potential of VR has been steadily growing, with tech companies and academic researchers exploring how virtual reality can help those who are seriously ill or dying.

Professor Lora Fleming, from the University of Exeter in the U.K., is researching the medical benefits of VR experiences on adult patients. Many medical professionals recognise the therapeutic benefits of patients experiencing nature, such as a walk on the beach or daytrip to a national park, but now researchers want to see if virtual nature can have the same effect.

“Not everyone can readily access these spaces so we’re using the latest advances in virtual reality to see if we can bring some of the benefits of nature into clinical settings,” said Professor Fleming.

Similarly, a physician in San Francisco called Sonya Kim has developed a programme, called Aloha VR, which simulates a peaceful tropical environment, helping boost brain activity and relaxation in elderly patients with dementia.

“I think VR allows patients’ neural pathways to be reactivated – some have dormant pathways – because of the power of presence, of having something right in front of them without any distraction,” she told the Washington Post.

Although dementia is a terminal illness, it seems that VR could be one of many treatments to make patients’ final days more comfortable. Watch Kim’s patients react to Aloha VR:

A British company called Tribemix, which creates “social VR experiences”, has also turned its attention to helping people with dementia. With the input of dementia patients and their carers, Tribemix created Virtucare, a therapeutic virtual reality experience which offers selection of calming simulations, ranging from a beach or luxury yacht, to an underwater coral reef, the international space station or a wildlife safari.

Tribemix says it has also been able to solve specific care needs with its pioneering technology, including increasing patient appetites with a VR experience that includes a table of delicious food, and simulating 3D church sermon experience with hymns and prayers, for those who are too ill to attend church in person.

Another expert looking specifically at VR in end of life care is Mel Slater, a researcher at the University of Barcelona, Spain. His research is focused on virtual reality and how humans interact with it, with one study exploring how virtual reality could be used in the assessment, understanding, and treatment of mental health disorders.

In one 32-patient study, he explored how VR could potentially help patients come to terms with death by simulating an out-of-body experience.

Each participant was fitted with a virtual reality headset and sensors with vibrating units on their hands and feet. The sensors allowed the virtual body to move when the participant moved, while vibrations simulated the effect of bumping into objects in the virtual world. Once the participant became ‘synced’ with their virtual body – moving and feeling at the same time – they would experience being lifted out of the body, mimicking an out-of-body experience.

Afterwards, the research team found that a fear of death was lower in the group that had experienced the VR simulation than a control group who had not. This mirrors previous research that out-of-body experiences decrease fear of death and increase a belief in the afterlife.

If this handful of healthcare initiatives is anything to go by, VR’s practical applications certainly extend well beyond video games. As the technology becomes more affordable, it is likely to become more widespread in all walks of life, including end of life care.

None of these developers and academics are claiming that virtual experiences can magically heal or remove the need for other forms of care. What it can provide is a controlled, immersive experience that takes the patient beyond their physical limitations. In hospices of the future, VR could be a powerful resource to help deliver quality end of life care.