A stay in the hospital can be a stressful experience for a child. Children are generally apprehensive of unfamiliar environments and unknown people. Furthermore, they don’t fully comprehend the nature of a situation. They don’t understand why they are removed from their favourite places and people, and why they can’t participate in their favourite activities. The confines of a hospital ward may be too restrictive for the free spirit of a child. All these factors make hospitalisation a stressful event for children. An additional aggravating factor is that children don’t have the mature defence mechanisms that adults do.
It’s worth noting here that stress and anxiety heighten one’s perception of pain. So, any measure that can help to scale down the anxiety will alleviate pain as well. This is particularly relevant during hospital stays where many interventions are likely to elicit different degrees of pain.
The Difficult Journey for Children through Hospital
Being sick and hospitalised can actually be a terrifying, if not utterly traumatic, experience for a child. Nobody likes being in a hospital, and children are no exception. Despite the extra effort that the staff in a paediatric ward puts in and the specially designed clinical spaces, it is often hard to make a child forget that they are in a hospital. Children are conscious of the fact that their normal life has been interrupted abruptly and that they are missing out on big events and family life. They may even begin to be apprehensive about pain, mutilation, immobility, separation from loved ones, loss of control, and disruption.
The following have been identified as sources of stress in hospitalised children:
- Intrusive events
- Physical symptoms
- Therapeutic interventions
- Restricted activity
- Separation from family and friends
- Hospital environment
As a consequence, paediatric patients with their less than fully developed defence mechanisms are more vulnerable to crisis due to hospitalisation.
Virtual Reality has an Important Role to Play
With regards to the medical applications of VR, paediatrics is an area that offers tremendous opportunity. As imaginative and inquisitive as children are, the immersive quality of VR is more likely to keep them spellbound than an adult. Children can explore coral reefs, or even walk with dinosaurs from the confines of their hospital beds. They can also feel like they are participating in their favourite activities again or seeing their favourite pet at play.
Family events can be filmed in 360° and then viewed through VR, so children can have a ‘real’ feel of being part of the event when compared with just looking at photos or videos. These possibilities make VR a very important tool, not only to improve a child’s quality of stay in the hospital but also to augment the healing process.
Scientific evidence proves beyond doubt that this cutting-edge technology offers some solid advantages in paediatrics. Here are some examples:
- VR distraction is an established pain management intervention and is useful in diminishing pain and behavioural distress in paediatric patients, particularly those undergoing invasive medical procedures (e.g., during vaccine or medication administration and drawing blood).
- It has been shown to overcome phobias which can facilitate the carrying out of imaging studies, such as MRIs and CT scans.
- It can make it easier for cancer patients to receive chemotherapy.
- It can help to manage social phobias and alleviate anxiety related to different clinical settings.
Traditional games such as board games and now the flurry of games available on smartphones and tablets can serve as agents of distraction in children. They may even play a part in improving children’s cognition. One study found that using a VR headset while playing a video game for distraction from pain had additional benefits for some children compared to those who played the game without the headset.
How VR can Benefit Children with Chronic Diseases
Chronic diseases are especially challenging in paediatric patients because they mean prolonged periods of stress for children and their families that come with the long hospital stays and protracted treatment cycles. A hospital environment can expose children to the suffering of other patients, and this can intensify their own fears and anxieties, including a fear of death.
One approach to managing the symptoms of depression and anxiety in such children is play therapy. Children playing is so normal a phenomenon that it’s significance is often overlooked. Play not only improves physical well-being in children, it strengthens their mental processes, stabilises their emotional state, and facilitates their communication and self-expression. These benefits of play extend equally to all children. In fact, play becomes more important for ill children as it helps them to recover and heal. So, where does VR fit in? It’s the greater immersion and distraction possible when VR is employed for therapeutic play. As the researchers in one study found out, therapeutic play using virtual reality computer games enhanced the psychological well-being of children with cancer who were hospitalised.
VR helps Parents too
A child’s illness can be a testing time for parents too, and for that matter the whole family. Families are psychologically vulnerable after the hospitalisation of a child. The associated stress can manifest as symptoms of depression and anxiety. In extreme cases, parents can develop posttraumatic stress symptoms (PTSS), which can in turn negatively impact their ability to care for the child. Therefore, relieving distress in parents is an important healthcare objective as well.
When VR helps hospitalised children, it’s helping parents too. Less stressed children means more relieved parents. Parents can rest assured that their children aren’t missing out on family events as they build memories together through the power of VR. In fact, DR.VR makes it possible for parents to share the VR experience with their child through a tablet. Parents often lose many hours of work taking care of a sick child. When VR is there to allay the fears of the child and help them recover, it translates to less time commitment on the part of parents. And the time they do spend together is of a much better quality.
In conclusion, VR technology has a definitive role to play in paediatrics. It can assist both children and their families on the difficult journey through the hospital. It can ensure emotional and mental well-being, and hasten recovery. DR.VR builds on these concepts to bring an innovative VR solution for children in hospitals. Our system now offers the possibility to provide breathing and mindfulness training through VR. The power of VR is such that it can substitute for analgesics and anaesthetics during medical procedures as it effectively erodes pain and anxiety through immersive distraction.
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