Virtual Reality Headsets Open New Worlds for Patients

Virtual reality headsets help patients at MU Health Care’s Children’s Hospital.
Christina McHenry, a Child Life specialist, helps Tate Carl-Biebrock, 4, of Cole Camp, put on a virtual reality headset at MU Health Care’s Children’s Hospital.

The Child Life program at MU Health Care’s Children’s Hospital recently added virtual reality (VR) headsets to its distraction therapy tools. Young patients can now swim with dolphins, run with horses and relax on the beach as they undergo procedures.

“The hospital can be an overwhelming place for kids,” said Christina McHenry, a Child Life specialist in the Blood Disorder and Cancer Unit at Children’s Hospital. “VR is an immersive distraction tool that transports them to a different world and helps them calm down, breathe and smile during treatments.”

Studies show that VR reduces pain and anxiety during medical procedures. Because of its “cool” factor, this distraction technique is in high demand.

“VR is an interesting and exciting technology, and most kids haven’t seen it before,” said Child Life specialist Amber Lashley, who works in the Emergency Department. “It really piques their interest, especially when compared to traditional distraction techniques such as blowing bubbles and playing ‘I Spy.’ ”

Lashley and McHenry said the VR headsets have been particularly helpful during procedures that involve sharp objects and require patients to sit still for extended periods of time.

“A lot of the tools doctors and nurses use look pretty scary,” McHenry said. “When we use VR, we are able to describe the pieces of information kids need to know without exposing them to sights and sounds that might make them more anxious.”

McHenry uses VR to ensure injections and blood transfusions go more smoothly. Lashley commonly uses the headsets during cast removals and wound suturing.

Merideth Lehman, director of the Child Life program at Children’s Hospital, said her team is currently exploring ways to broaden the use of VR throughout other departments.

“At any age, it’s hard to be stuck in a hospital room for days or weeks on end,” Lehman said. “VR can provide a fun escape for patients during a long hospital stay. Beyond that, we are also looking at how VR can encourage patients to move their bodies as they recover from injuries and surgeries. There are just so many possibilities with this technology.”

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