Virtual Reality is Making Medical Care for Kids Less Scary and Painful
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.
When I greeted Rodney Gorham, age 63, in an online chat session, he replied within seconds: “My pleasure.”
“Are you moving parts of your body as you type?” I asked.
This time, his response came about five minutes later: “I position the cursor with the eye tracking and select the same with moving my ankles.” Gorham, a former sales representative from Melbourne, Australia, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that impairs the brain’s nerve cells and the spinal cord, limiting the ability to move. ALS essentially “locks” a person inside their own body. Gorham is conversing with me by typing with his mind only–no fingers in between his brain and his computer.
The brain-computer interface enabling this feat is called the Stentrode. It's the brainchild of Synchron, a company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. After Gorham’s neurologist recommended that he try it, he became one of the first volunteers to have an 8mm stent, laced with small electrodes, implanted into his jugular vein and guided by a surgeon into a blood vessel near the part of his brain that controls movement.
After arriving at their destination, these tiny sensors can detect neural activity. They relay these messages through a small receiver implanted under the skin to a computer, which then translates the information into words. This minimally invasive surgery takes a day and is painless, according to Gorham. Recovery time is typically short, about two days.
When a paralyzed patient thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts.
When a paralyzed patient such as Gorham thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts. This pattern is detected by the Stentrode and relayed to a computer that learns to associate this pattern with the patient’s physical movements. The computer recognizes thoughts about kicking, making a fist and other movements as signals for clicking a mouse or pushing certain letters on a keyboard. An additional eye-tracking device controls the movement of the computer cursor.
The process works on a letter by letter basis. That’s why longer and more nuanced responses often involve some trial and error. “I have been using this for about two years, and I enjoy the sessions,” Gorham typed during our chat session. Zafar Faraz, field clinical engineer at Synchron, sat next to Gorham, providing help when required. Gorham had suffered without internet access, but now he looks forward to surfing the web and playing video games.
Gorham, age 63, has been enjoying Stentrode sessions for about two years.
The BCI revolution
In the summer of 2021, Synchron became the first company to receive the FDA’s Investigational Device Exemption, which allows research trials on the Stentrode in human patients. This past summer, the company, together with scientists from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department at Utrecht University, published a paper offering a framework for how to develop BCIs for patients with severe paralysis – those who can't use their upper limbs to type or use digital devices.
Three months ago, Synchron announced the enrollment of six patients in a study called COMMAND based in the U.S. The company will seek approval next year from the FDA to make the Stentrode available for sale commercially. Meanwhile, other companies are making progress in the field of BCIs. In August, Neuralink announced a $280 million financing round, the biggest fundraiser yet in the field. Last December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round. “One thing I can promise you, in five years from now, we’re not going to be where we are today. We're going to be in a very different place,” says Elad I. Levy, professor of neurosurgery and radiology at State University of New York in Buffalo.
The risk of hacking exists, always. Cybercriminals, for example, might steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices while extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“The prospect of bestowing individuals with paralysis a renewed avenue for communication and motor functionality is a step forward in neurotech,” says Hayley Nelson, a neuroscientist and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. “It is an exciting breakthrough in a world of devastating, scary diseases,” says Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. “To connect with the world when you are trapped inside your body is incredible.”
While the benefits for the paraplegic community are promising, the Stentrode’s long-term effectiveness and overall impact needs more research on safety. “Potential risks like inflammation, damage to neural tissue, or unexpected shifts in synaptic transmission due to the implant warrant thorough exploration,” Nelson says.
There are also concens about data privacy concerns and the policies of companies to safeguard information processed through BCIs. “Often, Big Tech is ahead of the regulators because the latter didn’t envisage such a turn of events...and companies take advantage of the lack of legal framework to push forward,” McArthur says. Hacking is another risk. Cybercriminals could steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices. Extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“We have to protect patient identity, patient safety and patient integrity,” Levy says. “In the same way that we protect our phones or computers from hackers, we have to stay ahead with anti-hacking software.” Even so, Levy thinks the anticipated benefits for the quadriplegic community outweigh the potential risks. “We are on the precipice of an amazing technology. In the future, we would be able to connect patients to peripheral devices that enhance their quality of life.”
In the near future, the Stentrode could enable patients to use the Stentrode to activate their wheelchairs, iPods or voice modulators. Synchron's focus is on using its BCI to help patients with significant mobility restrictions—not to enhance the lives of healthy people without any illnesses. Levy says we are not prepared for the implications of endowing people with superpowers.
I wondered what Gorham thought about that. “Pardon my question, but do you feel like you have sort of transcended human nature, being the first in a big line of cybernetic people doing marvelous things with their mind only?” was my last question to Gorham.
A slight smile formed on his lips. In less than a minute, he typed: “I do a little.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.