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Virtual reality eases pain for wound-care patients

September 5, 2018

Physiotherapists Jaclyn Frank, left, and Jane Crosley, help patient Graydon Cuthbertson take his mind off a painful wound-care procedure through his virtual-reality headset.

Rockyview General Hospital breaks new ground with novel therapy

Story & photo by Blain Fairbairn

CALGARY — In a Canadian first, patients undergoing wound-care procedures at the Rockyview General Hospital are now using a virtual-reality program to help ease pain and anxiety.

Using one of two Samsung Gear headsets funded by an anonymous donor, wound-care patients are transported into an immersive, three-dimensional environment that includes a virtual lakeside campground, a prehistoric landscape with dinosaurs and a tranquil ocean to swim with dolphins.

Graydon Cuthbertson used the therapy three times after having multiple surgeries involving his calves. “It’s a godsend,” says the 47-year-old Calgary man. “Even with painkillers, the first time I had wound care after my surgery, the pain was excruciating. But with virtual reality, I got through the next treatment with flying colours.

“I was focused on what I was seeing and hearing, and not thinking at all about how painful it might be. All of a sudden, one-and-a-half hours go by and it’s all over. It was awesome.”

Virtual reality’s visual and auditory experience has been clinically proven to be effective in reducing pain and anxiety reported by patients. The team leading the initiative at the hospital was inspired to investigate the therapeutic benefits of virtual reality after reviewing studies on its effectiveness from a pilot program conducted by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
While virtual reality has been used in clinical settings around the world for a variety of therapeutic and relaxation purposes, Rockyview General Hospital is the first hospital in Canada to employ the technology for wound care patients.

During the research phase at the hospital, patients receiving wound care were asked to rate their level of discomfort and overall experience — using surveys administered before and after virtual-reality therapy. Patient discomfort included ratings of pain, nausea and anxiety while measures of patient experience included feelings about future treatments and overall impression.

The results were impressive: All patients who used virtual reality found it helpful. Patients reported a 75 per cent reduction in patient discomfort with a 31 per cent improvement in overall patient experience.

Unlike conventional pain and anxiety-reduction therapies, such as painkillers or sedatives, no side effects were reported by patients who used virtual-reality therapy. While the program is not intended to replace pharmaceutical interventions, it’s anticipated virtual reality can be widely used as a complementary therapy that may reduce dependency upon drugs to enhance patient care.

“Rockyview’s virtual reality program illustrates how AHS employs innovative technology to improve patient care,” says Christopher Burnie, allied health manager at the hospital.

“Technology has always played an important role in healthcare but this is particularly exciting in that we can make a really positive impact on a patient’s experience without having to invest in something costly or complex. Interestingly, we’ve also seen how the therapy benefits staff. When surveyed, wound-care staff described lower levels of distress while they delivered treatment because they know their patients are much more comfortable.”

In addition to wound-care patients, the virtual-reality program is also being tested on patients in the hospital’s intensive care and cardiac care units.

Comprehensive criteria have been developed by the researchers and clinicians to ensure patients are suitable candidates for the therapy. Those who qualify can choose from 12 curated virtual reality experiences currently offered by the hospital.

Results from the virtual-reality study are being shared with other AHS sites in hopes the program may benefit patients across Alberta. Foothills Medical Centre’s burn unit is also investigating the therapy for its patients and the program has received interest from the Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, B.C.