For Children in the Hospital, VR May Be the Cure for Anxiety

This piece appeared in The Wall Street Journal on May 28, 2018.


While a 9-year-old boy recovered last year from a go-karting accident, the bandages on his wounds needed changing multiple times a day. It was a painful, anxiety-inducing ritual—until the boy was handed a virtual-reality headset. His mother remembers she “went from hearing pain-stricken screams to hearing ‘Wow, I’m under the sea looking at sea snakes! This is so cool, you have to see this!’ ”

Around the U.S., sick and injured children are temporarily escaping the hospital without leaving its premises. Instead of focusing on the needles puncturing their arms or the wounds that need to be cleaned, even very young children are slipping on a VR headset that allows them to explore digital worlds and immerse themselves in games. Besides reducing the children’s trauma, the headset can also diminish the need for pain medications. Just a few examples: The UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in the San Francisco Bay Area uses VR technology to make everyday procedures more pleasant and less painful. So does the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott’s Children’s Hospital. At Stanford Medicine, our Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital uses VR therapy in every patient unit.

By distracting patients from their pain and anxiety, a growing body of research suggests, VR actually reduces the pain and anxiety people experience. The University of Washington found that burn victims who explored a virtual world while their wounds were being treated reported feeling 50% less pain. A 2017 study by Cedars-Sinai found that virtual reality helped reduce the pain hospital patients reported by almost 25%, on average. VR has even been used in relatively minor surgical procedures where patients are sedated but remain awake. When donning VR goggles, patients needed fewer sedatives and experienced less pain. At its best, virtual reality goes beyond simply diminishing a bad experience, and instead creates one with more positive overtones.

Hospitals and medical centers have been experimenting with virtual reality for decades, but only in recent years has the technology become portable and affordable enough to serve as a practical tool to help patients. Still, there is room for the technology to become even more sophisticated. Experts from my university are collaborating with Silicon Valley engineers to experiment with VR content tailored for certain age groups, and they’re exploring how to better measure and quantify the effects of VR on children.

Pediatric specialists might appreciate this VR technology as much as the children do. No matter how long these doctors practice, they never become desensitized to the anguish of their young patients. Recently, my colleague Stephanie Chao needed to remove fluid from the cyst of a young boy. The size of the needle required in that procedure typically terrifies children. But in this case, the boy never saw the needle. His attention was absorbed inside his VR headset. “His only question was if I had finished,” said Dr. Chao.