Studies: Virtual Reality Shows Promise in Palliative Care

More providers are investing in virtual reality (VR) programs as a growing body of research shows that it can ease pain symptoms and improve outcomes for palliative care patients.

Virtual reality technology can reduce the use of high-cost pain therapy services and medications, according to Dr. Joseph Shega, executive vice president and chief medical officer of VITAS Healthcare, a subsidiary of Chemed Corp (NYSE: CHE).

“We’ve seen that VR technology can deliver surprising results at a relatively low cost and with little training required for caregivers,” Shega recently told Forbes Health. “The technology is relatively easy to deploy and use, which makes it useful for a variety of patients in a variety of settings without putting undue stress on care providers.”

Significant pain level reduction was observed among all 45 palliative care patients who participated in virtual reality experiences for an October study published in BMC Palliative Care. Around 17.5% of the participants reported lower rates of pain-related sleep impairment after using virtual reality. About 82.5% of patients in the study reported feeling joy or happiness following VR interventions.

A second study found that roughly 88% of palliative patients nationwide who have used virtual reality in the last decade reported improvement in their physical and/or psychological symptoms. The journal Palliative Medicine published the research in May 2022.

Researchers examined eight other studies from 2012 to 2021 that included virtual reality interventions among a rough total of 225 palliative care patients with various types of advanced illnesses and age ranges (20 to 103 years old). These patients reported improved pain management as well as reduced feelings of anxiety and depression.

Additionally, palliative care patients reported a “significant improvement” in quality of life, as well as positive behavioral changes, according to the Palliative Care researchers. These findings suggest that there could be therapeutic benefits to expanding virtual reality programming in palliative care delivery, researchers indicated.

VITAS is among the hospice and palliative providers that have integrated VR into care delivery. In 2019 the company began collaborating with AT&T and health care technology company WellSky to develop a 5G virtual relative system aimed at addressing chronic pain and anxiety in patients at or nearing the end of life. Patients use a 5G mobile hotspot to receive virtual and augmented reality (AR) video experiences.

VR and AR represents an investment in optimizing patient care, according to Shega.

“VR and AR has the potential to be a new alternative therapy that will hopefully benefit patients by decreasing symptom burden while increasing quality of life,” Shega previously told Hospice News. “Moreover, technology could offer a unique opportunity for patients and families to do things virtually that were previously not possible in a physical sense, such as traveling to remote destinations together.”

Other operators are similarly embracing virtual reality technology.

Georgia-based Hospice Savannah began implementing VR technology into patient care during the pandemic, launching these services in 2020 to ease pain and isolation in patients.

Michigan-based Emmanuel Hospice unveiled a VR program in 2019 to bring patients an additional layer of pain and symptom management, as well as set itself apart from competitors.

Florida-based St. Francis Reflections Lifestage Care incorporates virtual reality into their veteran services through its Space Coast Honor Flight program. This includes views of national monuments and sites that honor veterans nationwide.

Virtual reality experiences allow for expanded opportunities to deliver personalized patient care, according to Kristie Henry-Roling, employee engagement manager at St. Francis Reflections.

“With the ability to personalize a patient’s VR experience, we can do more than bring the world to our patients—we are able to give our patients those ‘what matters most’ moments without additional physical stress,” Henry-Roling told Forbes Health.

The Elizabeth Hospice in 2021 partnered with MyndVR to expand its virtual reality program in response to rising cases of isolation, anxiety and fear among patients amid the pandemic. The California-based provider received positive feedback from participants, according to Laury Bliss, who previously served as the hospice’s chief strategy officer.

“After receiving such positive feedback from our patients and families, we did not hesitate to continue this experience,” Bliss previously told Hospice News. “Our skilled nursing facilities and assisted living communities have also valued this offering and requested that we continue.”

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