Using VR to Alleviate Pain at Children’s Hospital Minnesota

Virtual Reality (VR) has now firmly established itself as a legitimate platform in the medical device industry, specifically for its ability to craft technical understanding through simulation, and deliver empathy through immersion. However, this technology has tremendous potential to improve patient experience on the frontlines of healthcare as well – when it is used as a pain management and distraction technique.

Last week, the Advanced Applications team at Worrell had the opportunity to lead the use of VR, for the first time ever with pediatric patients at Children’s Hospital Minneapolis. This feasibility study was conducted in the oncology clinic with young patients undergoing chemotherapy, blood transfusions and other relation procedures. In addition to coordinating this study with the care team at Children’s, Worrell brought together key opinion leaders from Google, Best Buy, GeekSquad, 3M and AppliedVR to co-create on how to build a sustainable product ecosystem for this application of VR.


We are seeing a number of cognitive distraction methods designed to decrease patient pain and anxiety. Applied VR is a mobile platform designed to distract a patient by immersing them in a simulated world filled with interactive games. The goal of this feasibility study was not only to uncover insights into helping us answer whether or not children enjoyed engaging with VR applications, but also to prove that there are promising drug-free pain management alternatives that can he used within, and outside of, clinical care settings.

The technology had a positive impact on patients’ hospital experience, and garnered excitement from patients and their families, as well as hospital staff. Jen Mehra, an Educational Consultant and VR guru at Best Buy, used the Google Expeditions platform to teleport a patient and her family to the moon. Within seconds, she flew the family back to earth to discover Machu Picchu.

AppliedVR provided our team with their clinically-proven VR platform to engage patients with a variety of child-friendly gaming environments. Providing patients with a slightly different experience than the Google Expedition, patients took a liking to knocking over polar bears with dodge balls within a virtual world. As the day went on, we began to realize this was much more than play time with a cool technology. The 30 minutes’ patients engaged with VR offered them the ability to escape the painful experience they would have otherwise had to face in their physical reality. The hospital walls that confined them were torn down by these virtual adventures. For a brief moment, we gave them the ability to leave when movement wasn’t otherwise possible.

The day was followed by a roundtable co-creation with technology experts from Google and Best Buy, materials scientists from 3M, unity development knowledge from AppliedVR and clinical expertise from the Children’s care team. The mind power and energy in the room allowed us to come up with solutions for effectively bringing VR into the clinical world as a premier tool for managing patients’ pain.

All parties involved expressed interested in moving forward with something bigger. “Now that we understand VR to be a good fit within our clinic, we can move forward in proving clinical significance” says Jeffrey Weness, Director of Innovation at Minneapolis Children’s Hospital. This clinical significance we hope will eventually transfer to other related areas within the hospital, such as the Kiran Stordalen and Horst Rechelbacher Pediatric Pain Clinic, a 10,000-square-foot outpatient clinic on the campus of Minneapolis Children’s Hospital. (www.childrensmn.org)

In the meantime, a clinical study geared specifically to patients within the hematology/oncology clinic is the primary focus. “When you are in pain, the mind needs to feel free,” says GeekSquad lead Elliot Nelson. He continued, “Whether that is through Skype, TV or VR, we need to find ways to bring people together, to make people feel at home.”

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