Virtual reality in health care

UCHealth expands VR experience to 10 locations in cancer care.
Oct. 18, 2018
virtual reality googles sit on a table while couple talks in the background.
A few months ago UCHealth approached Robin and her husband, David Maestas, background, about a new opportunity UCHealth is offering to infusion patients: virtual reality. Photos by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

Before Robin Maestas’ chemotherapy drip can be started, she is given an IV form of Benadryl to ward off any allergic reactions. The medication makes her anxious and uneasy.

“It makes you want to jump out the window,” she said as she nods in the direction of the window of her private treatment room on the second floor of UCHealth Cancer Center – Harmony Campus in Fort Collins.

patient and husband using virtual reality in health care
Robin Maestas, left, and her husband, David, use UCHealth’s new virtual reality system to help calm their nerves before Robin’s treatment at UCHealth Cancer Center – Harmony Campus in Fort Collins, recently.

To treat her ovarian cancer, Robin was receiving her second-to-last round of chemotherapy. It requires a private room at the center’s outpatient infusion clinic because of its specifics. And she can sometimes be there up to eight hours.

A few months ago, Sarah Schoeneman, a certified nursing assistant for UCHealth Cancer Care & Hematolog in northern Colorado, approached Robin and her husband, David Maestas, about a new opportunity UCHealth is offering to infusion patients: virtual reality.

Robin knew right away it was something she’d like to try — anything to help with the effects of the medication.

patient using virtual reality in health care
Certified nursing assistant Tiffany Gottlob helps Chuck Kler, set up for a virtual reality experience as he waits for test results to see if he needs a blood transfusion at UCHealth Cancer Center – Harmony Campus in Fort Collins.

Virtual reality in health care

“Virtual reality has been used in health care for a couple decades now,” said Nicole Caputo, UCHealth’s director of experience and innovation. “We read the literature and research on its benefits and decided it was something we should see if our patients would benefit from.”

In health care, VR is being used for everything from pain management to combating loneliness in long-term care facilities to clinical education. Outside of health care, it’s popular in the gaming industry as well as in construction, where it showcases proposed designs.

UCHealth trialed VR with a pilot program in outpatient infusion. Infusion patients can sometimes spend hours sitting in one spot while they get their treatment.

“We wanted to see if using virtual reality as a distraction improved our patient experience,” Caputo said.

The results were overwhelmingly positive.

The pilot program

A poll of 18 caregivers, 60 patients and 18 staff members who provide care for those patients found that 88 percent of patients who tried VR said they’d use it again, as did 94 percent of caregivers.

“We learned it was a distraction, but we kind of knew that,” Caputo said. “But what we learned that we didn’t know going in was that it’s so much more than a distraction. For patients, it made time go faster and transported them to a new place. Some even said they forgot they were sick for a bit.

patient and husband using virtual reality in health care
Robin Maestas, left, watches her husband, David, as he uses the virtual reality goggles prior to the couple using the devices to calm their nerves before Robin’s cancer treatment.

“The best part is that it’s simple — it makes people happy. And if we can do that while they are here, that’s what we want to do. That’s what makes this technology so powerful; it has the power to transform your experience.”

Not only was UCHealth looking at patient responses, but introducing VR into its care strategy had to integrate easily with staff’s workflow. The pilot showed that 100 percent of staff was willing to offer it to patients.

“It was a little time-consuming in the beginning, only because you’re having to explain it for the first time to patients on how to use it,” Schoeneman said. “But I do think it is worth the time. It’s beneficial for our patients to have VR when they are nervous; it is something that is able to take their mind of everything that is going on.”

Expanding VR in health-care facilities

With the data to back the plan, UCHealth chose 10 locations to roll out VR at outpatient cancer care and infusion facilities throughout the Front Range and Steamboat Springs. VR also will launch at the burn unit at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.

patient using virtual reality in health care
Chuck Kler, left, points to something that he sees in his virtual reality goggles, which he uses while he waits for test results to see if he needs a blood transfusion at UCHealth Cancer Center – Harmony Campus in Fort Collins.

Chuck Kler was one of the first patients in northern Colorado to use VR. He gets blood work done several times a week. He must wait for the results before knowing if he’ll need to stay longer for a blood transfusion. Kler enjoys VR while he waits. He said it breaks up the monotony of doing the same thing each time he comes.

“It’s fascinating,” he said. “And I’ve got my favorites already.”

UCHealth partnered with Rendever, a Boston-based company that originally created its programs and equipment for long-term care facilities. The equipment includes a set of goggles that fit a Samsung smartphone. The phone is linked to a tablet, which controls the program.

Participants can choose from games or different short videos — such as swimming with dolphins. They can even drop themselves into their old neighborhood in a Google-Maps-like experience.

Kler likes the farm sanctuary video — a favorite among most participants, who have commented on liking everything from the “goats that jump in my lap” to the video’s “happy ending.”

patient using virtual reality in health care setting while husband runs tablet.
John Hill holds the tablet that controls the content his wife, Mary, watches through the virtual reality goggles she uses during her chemotherapy. A favorite video among patients if the farm sanctuary.

Participants can take a helicopter flight over Dubai, lounge around with seals, or sit in the audience of a symphony. By request, Rendever also is localizing its material for UCHealth. It is currently working on a bicycle ride through the Rocky Mountains.

One of Mary Hill’s favorites is watching the symphony.

“It would probably bore most people,” she said. “But to see the music I know being played by musicians — I love it.”

She took off her cap and placed the goggles strap over her smooth head. She told her husband, John Hill, to play the symphony one, after which she said, “We’ve been to Symphonic Hall in Paris twice. Oh, the acoustics, the music and the world-class musicians…”

She sat with a smile on her face as she watched the symphony from her “favorite seat” next to the violinists. “They put me in the best spot,” she said.

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.