A blood draw is not normally a fun experience, but these days, virtual reality technology is changing that.
Instead of watching a needle go into his arm, a child wearing a VR headset at Children's Hospital Los Angeles can play a game throwing balls at cartoon bears. In Seattle, at the University of Washington, a burn patient can immerse herself in a soothing snow scene. And at the University of Miami Hospital, a five-minute skin biopsy can become an exciting ride at an amusement park.
VR is transforming once-frightening medical encounters for kids, from blood draws to biopsies to pre-surgical prep, into tolerable ones.
It's literally a game changer, says pediatric neurosurgeon Kurtis Auguste, who uses the tool to help explain pending operations to his young patients and their families. The virtual reality 3-D portrait of their brain is recreated from an MRI, originally to help plan the surgery. The image of normally bland tissue is painted with false colors to better see the boundaries and anomalies of each component. It can be rotated, viewed from every possible angle, zoomed in and out; incisions can be made and likely results anticipated. Auguste has extended its use to patients and families.
"The moment you put these headsets on the kids, we immediately have a link, because honestly, this is how they communicate with each other," says Auguste. "We're all sitting around the table playing games. It's really bridged the distance between me, the pediatric specialist, and my patients" at the Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland, now affiliated with the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.
The VR experience engages people where they are, immersing them in the environment rather than lecturing them. And it seems to work in all environments, across age and cultural differences, leading to a better grasp of what will be undertaken. That understanding is crucial to meaningful informed consent for surgery. It is particularly relevant for safety-net hospitals, which includes most children's hospitals, because often members of the families were born elsewhere and may have limited understanding of English, not to mention advanced medicine.
"We're trying to target ways that we can decrease pain, anxiety, fear – what people usually experience as a function of a needle," says Jeffrey Gold, a pioneer in adapting VR at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. He ran the pain clinic there and in 2004 initially focused on phlebotomy, simple blood draws. Many of their kids require frequent blood draws to monitor serious chronic conditions such as diabetes, HIV infection, sickle cell disease, and other conditions that affect the heart, liver, kidneys and other organs.
The scientific explanation of how VR works for pain relief draws upon two basic principles of brain function. The first is "top down inhibition," Gold explains. "We all have the inherent capacity to turn down signals once we determine that signal is no longer harmful, dangerous, hurtful, etc. That's how our brain operates on purpose. It's not just a distraction, it's actually your brain stopping the pain signal at the spinal cord before it can fire all the way up to the frontal lobe."
Second is the analgesic effect from endorphins. "If you're in a gaming environment, and you're having fun and you're laughing and giggling, you are actually releasing endorphins...a neurochemical reaction at the synaptic level of the brain," he says.
Part of what makes VR effective is "what's called a cognitive load, where you have to actually learn something and do something," says Gold. He has worked with developers on a game call Bear Blast, which has proven to be effective in a clinical trial for mitigating pain. But he emphasizes, it is not a one-size-fits all; the programs and patients need to be evaluated to understand what works best for each case.
Gold was a bit surprised to find that VR "actually facilitates quicker blood draws," because the staff doesn't have to manage the kids' anxiety, so "they require fewer needle sticks." The kids, parents, and staff were all having a good time, "and that's a big win when everybody is benefiting." About two years ago the hospital made VR an option that patients can request in the phlebotomy lab, and about half of kids age 4 and older choose to do so.
The technology "gets the kids engaged and performing the activity the way we want them to" to maximize recovery.
VR reduces or eliminates the need to use sedation or anesthesia, which carries a small but real risk of an adverse reaction. And important to parents, it eliminates the recovery time from using sedation, which shortens the visit and time missed from school and work.
A more intriguing question is whether reducing fear and anxiety in early-life experiences with the healthcare system through activities like VR will have a long-term affect on kids' attitudes toward medicine as they grow older. "If you're a screaming meemie when you come get your blood draw when you're five or seven, you're still that anxious adolescent or adult who is all quivering and sweating and avoiding healthcare," Gold says. "That's a longitudinal health outcome I'd love to get my hands on in 10-15 years from now."
Dermatologist Hadar Lev-Tov read about the use of VR to treat pain and decided to try it in his practice at the University of Miami Hospital. He thought, "OK, this is low risk, it's easy to do. So we got some equipment and got it done." It was so affordable he paid for it out of his own pocket, rather than wait to go through administrative channels. The results were so interesting that he decided to publish it as a series of case studies with a wide variety of patients and types of procedures.
Some of them, such as freezing off warts, are not particularly painful. "But there can be a lot of anxiety, especially for kids, which can be worse than pain and can disrupt the procedure." It can trigger a non-rational, primal fight or flight response in the limbic region of the brain.
Adults understand the need for a biopsy of a skin growth and tolerate what might be a momentary flick of pain. "But for a kid you think twice about a biopsy, both because it's a hassle and because it could be a traumatic event for a child," says Lev-Tov. VR has helped to allay such fears and improve medical care.
Integrating VR into practice has been relatively easy, primarily focusing on simple training for staff and ensuring that standard infection control practices are used in handling equipment that is used by different patients. More mundane issues are ensuring that the play back and wi-fi equipment are functioning properly. He has had a few complaints from kids when the procedure is competed and the VR is turned off prematurely, which is why he favors programs like a roller coaster ride that lasts about five minutes, ample time to take a biopsy or two.
The future is today
The pediatric neurosurgeon Auguste is collaborating with colleagues at Oakland Children's to expand use of VR into different areas of care. Cancer specialists often use a port, a bubble installed under the skin in the chest of the child, to administer chemotherapy. But the young patient's curiosity often draws their attention downward to the port and their chin can potentially contaminate or obstruct it, interfering with the procedure. So the team developed a VR game involving birds that requires players to move their heads upward, away from the port, improving administration of the drugs and reducing the risk of infection.
Innovative use of VR just may be one tool that actually makes kids eager to visit the doctor.
Other games are being developed for rehabilitation that require the use of specific nerve and muscle combinations. The technology "gets the kids engaged and performing the activity the way we want them to" to maximize recovery, Auguste explains. "We can monitor their progress by the score on the game, and if it plateaus, maybe switch to another game."
Another project is trying to ease the anxiety and confusion of the patient and family experience within the hospital itself. Hospital staff are creating a personalized VR introductory walking tour that leads from the parking garage through the maze of structures and corridors in the hospital complex to Dr. Auguste's office, phlebotomy, the MRI site, and other locations they might visit. The goal is to make them familiar with key landmarks before they even set foot in the facility. "So when they come the day of the visit they have already taken that exact same path, hopefully more than once."
"They don't miss their MRI appointment and therefore they don't miss their clinical appointment with me," says Auguste. It reduces patient anxiety about the encounter and from the hospital's perspective, it will reduce costs of missed and rescheduled visits simply because patients did not go to the right place at the right time.
The VR visit will be emailed to patients ahead of time and they can watch it on a smartphone installed in a disposable cardboard viewer. Oakland Children's hopes to have the system in place by early next year. Auguste says their goal in using VR, like other health care providers across the country, is "to streamline the entire patient experience."
Innovative use of VR just may be one tool that actually makes kids eager to visit the doctor. That would be a boon to kids, parents, and the health of America.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”