UBC School of Nursing is exploring virtual reality uses in healthcare

Researchers find that VR can help patients manage pain, face fears, and help simulate clinical skills for nurses


VR can be used in the medical field to help patients manage pain, face fears, and can even help nurses practice skill tests. (submitted)

Most of us would likely associate virtual reality headsets with video games and accidentally crashing into our own coffee tables, but at the University of British Columbia researchers are exploring how VR can be used to manage chronic pain in cancer patients.

Dr. Bernie Garrett, associate director of infrastructure and technology at the UBC School of Nursing, is part of the team running the randomized control trial.

“People [with chronic pain] end up resorting to very powerful drugs, such as opiates, to help manage their pain on a daily basis. And so, anything that gives them some sort of relief from this is potentially valuable,” says Garrett.

The month-long VR trial is being conducted with the goal of studying 100 different cancer patients experiencing chronic pain, who are sent home with all the equipment they need.

Over the month, they monitor their pain levels before, during, and after their daily 30 to 40-minute sessions, among other factors like sleep and quality of life, says Garrett.

The four weeks of VR experiences are divided into two weeks of relaxing guided meditation sessions and two weeks of problem-solving activities like puzzles and games.

He says both types of experiences are designed to take patients’ minds away from their pain through “a very powerful form of distraction.”

Garrett, who has a background in technology, says he became interested in this work through his colleague Dr. Tanya Taverner, a pain researcher and assistant professor at the UBC School of Nursing, more than ten years ago.

But VR technology is being used for more than just pain management.

Through virtual reality exposure therapy people can work through their anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and phobias by encountering these scary situations in a virtual environment.

“The goal of exposure therapy then is to help reduce a person’s fear and anxiety, with the ultimate goal of eliminating avoidance behaviour and increasing quality of life,” reads the Verywell Mind’s website.

VR is also being used to help people recover motor function after having a stroke.

Being able to amplify somebody’s real-life movements in a virtual environment not only gives positive reinforcement to the person doing the rehabilitation, it can also accelerate healing and performance overall, Garrett says.

At UBC Garrett has also explored how VR can be used in educational contexts.

In healthcare, it is common to use a robotic patient simulator that can mimic pulse and blood pressure rates, but they can be very expensive and can only be practiced on in the lab that they stay in.

Garrett says that companies and manufacturers are working on building VR experiences that could replace these mannequins.

“That will be particularly advantageous because people can experience clinical situations in a virtual reality context. They can do it anywhere. They could do it on their own time,” he says.

There are many more applications that augmented reality can be used for in health. Garrett anticipates that it will become more popular as time goes on and further research is conducted.

“It’s beginning to become very mainstream, and it’s not just the geeks and the gamers who are going to be doing it. It’s actually coming pretty fast into everyday life.”