Research: Virtual reality opens up prospects in palliative care

More providers are investing in virtual reality (VR) programs as a growing body of research shows they can relieve pain symptoms and improve outcomes for palliative care patients.

According to Dr. Joseph Sheg, executive vice president and chief medical officer of VITAS Healthcare, a subsidiary of Chemed Corp (NYSE: CHE), virtual reality technology could reduce the use of costly pain relief services and drugs.

“We have seen that virtual reality technology can produce amazing results at relatively low cost and with minimal training for caregivers,” Shega recently told Forbes Health. “This technology is relatively easy to deploy and use, making it useful for a wide variety of patients in a wide variety of settings without placing an undue burden on healthcare professionals.”

A significant reduction in pain levels was observed among all 45 palliative care patients who participated in virtual reality experiences for an October study published in BMC Palliative Care. About 17.5% of participants reported a reduction in pain-related sleep disturbances after using virtual reality. About 82.5% of patients in the study reported feeling joy or happiness after VR interventions.

A second study found that approximately 88% of palliative patients nationwide who have used virtual reality over the past decade reported an improvement in their physical and/or psychological symptoms. The Journal of Palliative Medicine published the study in May 2022.

The researchers examined eight other studies from 2012 to 2021 that included virtual reality interventions among approximately 225 palliative care patients with various types of advanced disease and age ranges (20 to 103 years). These patients reported improved pain relief as well as reduced feelings of anxiety and depression.

In addition, according to palliative care researchers, patients receiving palliative care reported a “significant improvement” in their quality of life as well as positive behavioral changes. These results suggest that expanding virtual reality programming into palliative care may have therapeutic benefits, the researchers note.

VITAS is among the hospice and palliative care providers that have integrated virtual reality into the healthcare process. In 2019, the company partnered with AT&T and health technology company WellSky to develop a 5G virtual relatives system designed to treat chronic pain and anxiety in patients at or near the end of life. Patients use a 5G mobile hotspot to watch videos in virtual and augmented reality (AR).

According to Shega, VR and AR represent an investment in optimizing patient care.

“VR and AR have the potential to be a new alternative therapy that we hope will benefit patients by reducing the burden of symptoms while improving quality of life,” Shega previously told Hospice News. “Moreover, technology can provide patients and their families with a unique opportunity to virtually do things that were previously impossible in a physical sense, such as traveling together to distant places.”

Other operators are also using virtual reality technology.

Georgia-based Savannah Hospice has begun incorporating virtual reality technology into patient care during the pandemic, launching these services in 2020 to ease pain and patient isolation.

In 2019, Michigan-based Emmanuel Hospice introduced a VR program to provide patients with an extra layer of pain and symptom management and to stand out from the competition.

Company St. Florida-based Francis Reflections Lifestage Care is incorporating virtual reality into its services for veterans through its Space Coast Honor Flight program. This includes views of national monuments and veterans sites around the country.

According to Christy Henry-Rowling, employee engagement manager at St. Francis Reflections, virtual reality experience allows you to expand the possibilities for personalized patient care.

“With the ability to personalize the patient experience in virtual reality, we can do more than just open up the world to our patients — we can give our patients those very important moments without additional physical stress,” Henry-Rawling told Forbes Health.

In 2021, Elizabeth Hospice partnered with MyndVR to expand its virtual reality program in response to growing cases of isolation, anxiety and fear among patients during the pandemic. According to Laurie Bliss, formerly director of hospice strategy, the California provider received positive feedback from attendees.

“Having received such positive feedback from our patients and their families, we did not hesitate to continue this experience,” Bliss previously told Hospice News. “Our qualified nursing facilities and nursing communities have also appreciated this proposal and asked us to proceed.”

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