How can health care professionals put patients at ease before and during stressful procedures? A new virtual reality (VR) technology might be the answer for millions of patients with fears and concerns about visiting the clinic.
Needles are the most common office procedure, and needle fear is nearly universal in young children. Studies show nearly two-thirds of children and one-fourth of adults have a fear of needles. Poorly managed childhood procedures can have lifelong consequences, including anxiety, health care and vaccine avoidance (1 in 10 adults avoid COVID vaccination because of needle fear), and complications from delaying health care access. This costs the U.S. an estimated $1.5 billion each year.
As a pediatrician, the first question that most children asked me was, “Do I have to get a shot today?” That fear would cloud the entire encounter, making it impossible to manage pressing medical issues. Needle procedures that should take minutes could take hours and additional staff, delaying important diagnoses and treatments. Creating a calm and comfortable environment during procedures is a priority for health care professionals, and virtual reality can help.
As a child, I spent countless hours at my father’s pharmacy, observing how each health care interaction could shape an individual’s health care journey – for good or bad. If someone had a good experience at the pharmacy, they would be sure to return. My life was also shaped by the experience of my brother’s autism and his needle anxiety. His health care journey was rocky, and as a result, he wasn’t able to receive the medical care he needed.
Stories like this are common, maybe even in your own family, and it’s not getting any better for kids. The CDC vaccination schedule and childhood medical care means that children typically experience over 50 – and perhaps as many as 100 needles during childhood. It only takes one bad needle experience to scare a child, not only for needles, but potentially off health care for life.
My experiences throughout my childhood and as a pediatrician led me to want to find a solution and make health care facilities a place where children and families could feel safe and supported. My studies showed me that virtual reality could help me solve needle fear.
After conducting the world’s largest medical VR studies for procedures, I developed an evidence-based therapeutic platform designed to combat pain and anxiety during routine medical procedures. Our studies found that this new approach to VR can reduce pain by 60 percent, anxiety by 40 percent, parental distress by 75 percent, and halve the need for restraints.
How is this possible? It starts with how the brain recognizes pain. A person who is injured while participating in a sporting event may not feel pain at the moment of impact, but are in severe pain once they see the injury. When a person’s thoughts are wholly focused on another activity, the brain is “tricked” into perceiving less pain. VR leverages this phenomenon.
In a health care setting, VR can reframe the entire medical experience. Needles and other intimidating real-world stimuli at a medical clinic can be replaced by virtual stimuli, including more positive and friendly images. This patented method, called procedural choreography, aligns the real-world experience with a synchronized virtual story.
For example, a child using VR to experience an underwater adventure may at the same time be receiving a standard vaccination from a nurse. Waves wash over the child’s arm as the nurse sanitizes the injection site. Fish nibble at their arm as the nurse administers the vaccine. The child enjoys exploring underwater while receiving a more enjoyable health care visit.
The results are impressive. Doctors who have used our device have found that 80 to 90 percent of young patients who would previously refuse shots due to needle fear would no longer flinch or tense up in anticipation of their shots, making the process worry-free for the patient, the HCP, and their caregiver.
While VR is a recent addition to the health care industry, it is quickly becoming a standard of care, particularly for children. Health care providers are becoming increasingly familiar with VR and are using the technology more broadly in clinics and hospitals as a result.
It won’t be long before you see virtual reality utilized at your family’s physician’s office. When you do, don’t hesitate to enter the virtual world and make your health care experience less stressful and more comfortable.
Evelyn Chan is a physician and health care executive.