July 18, 2024

Innovation & Tech Today


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How VR Technology is Changing the Pediatric Experience

The advancements in virtual reality continue to transform many industries — especially the medical industry. VR is changing the patient experience and making it easier for doctors to perform needle procedures with less pain and anxiety. 

To get an inside look at VR and its influence on the industry, Innovation & Tech Today spoke with Evelyn Chan, a Rhodes Scholar, pediatrician, and CEO of Smileyscope. She conducted the world’s largest medical VR study and found a way to reduce needle-procedure pain by 60% and anxiety by 40% through the use of medical virtual reality devices. Thus far, she has partnered with over 40 U.S. hospitals to implement the technology.

Innovation & Tech Today: Can you share the story of what inspired you to combine your background in pediatrics with virtual reality technology to address pain and anxiety during needle procedures?  

Evelyn Chan: I became a pediatrician to make a positive difference in children’s lives. Having poked thousands of needles into children, I can tell you that the practice of medicine is often traumatic for children, families, and healthcare providers alike. In pediatric residency we were taught to “listen through the cries” — but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

I was frustrated by the lack of options to help children with their biggest healthcare fear: needles. To address this, I led a group that conducted world-leading research on the use of virtual reality in medicine. First, we reviewed the scientific literature, finding that VR held promise as a therapeutic tool, but that there were serious shortcomings with existing products when it came to medical use. 

So, we started Smileyscope and developed a medical-grade headset from the ground up. We then created a patented VR program that synchronizes the patient’s virtual experience with the medical procedure — we call this “Procedural Choreography.” We partnered with talented producers to create a world-class animated underwater adventure where waves gently wash over the child’s arm as the nurse sanitizes the injection site, and friendly fish playfully nibble at their arm while the needle is inserted. It teaches patients positive coping skills, allowing both the patient and the clinician to have a better treatment experience. 

Poor needle experiences in childhood mean that up to 25% of adults avoid medical care where needles are involved. By intervening early, we can reduce needle phobia and improve long-term healthcare outcomes. 

Photo via Smileyscope

I&T Today: Can you explain how this technology works and its impact on patients? 

EC: In early 2022, Smileyscope received patent approval for our core “procedural choreography” technology. Procedural choreography works by synchronizing common medical procedures to a VR scenario; it essentially replaces a negative real-world stimulus, like a needle jab, with a more positive virtual experience, like friendly fish nibbles. 

We conducted the world’s largest randomized clinical trial which showed that by reframing these experiences, patients see a 60% reduction in pain and a 40% reduction in anxiety compared to the current standard of care (Chan et al, The J Peds 2019). The study also demonstrated that Smileyscope halves the use of physical restraints (i.e. pinning a child down), and reduces parental distress by 75%. 

We’ve since expanded beyond needle procedures and are now seeing Smileyscope being used by clinicians across the hospital for a huge range of medical procedures. They use Smileyscope for wound dressing changes, anesthesia induction, behavioral health, laceration repairs (stitches), and even plaster cast applications/removals. The sky is really the limit. 

I&T Today: Could you walk us through the key findings and results of the world’s largest medical VR study you conducted? What were the most surprising or impactful outcomes? 

EC: The study we conducted compared Smileyscope VR to the current standard of care (SOC). The current SOC included topical analgesics, a 2D distraction such as a tablet, and a comfort position, which involves the parent holding the child securely to soothe them during the procedure. We suspected that VR would reduce pain and anxiety, but we were surprised to see such a vast improvement over the current standard of care. Patients reported an average of 60% less pain and 40% less anxiety compared to the standard of care — that’s huge! 

We were also pleasantly surprised to see the significant reduction in the use of restraints. Parents often dread needle procedures because if their child needs to be held down, the experience is traumatic for them as well as their child. We were thrilled to see that Smileyscope could reduce the use of restraints to half the rate without VR.  

I&T Today: What future developments do you anticipate in the field of medical VR, and how do you envision Smileyscope’s role in shaping these developments? 

EC: Gaming and consumer-focused VR has been around for a long time, but procedural VR is in its infancy! Smileyscope began with needle procedures just a few years ago, and we continue to be inspired by the way healthcare providers have embraced the technology. In response, we have significantly expanded our content library and are now seeing Smileyscope used for over 200 distinct procedures all across the hospital.  

We see massive potential for VR as a non-pharmacological alternative for pain and anxiety relief. For example, lately, we’re seeing Smileyscope being used to reduce or eliminate the need for sedation medication for minor procedures across the hospital. 

I&T Today: How do you see virtual reality technology evolving in healthcare in the coming years, and what role do you envision Smileyscope playing in that evolution? 

EC: We are on the verge of an exciting new era in medicine. In the coming years, we see VR having a massive impact on the way we treat patient pain and anxiety. The convergence of crucial factors is paving the way for mainstream adoption. These factors include the maturation of technology, accessibility, and addressing unmet needs. 

Picture of By Lindsey Feth

By Lindsey Feth

Managing Editor, Innovation & Tech Today

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