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Nobody Likes Needles

Pilot project uses virtual reality to calm kids during infusions for hemophilia.

Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, has created a virtual reality game to help ease anxiety during intravenous infusions
Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, has created a virtual reality game to help ease anxiety during intravenous infusions. Photo used with permission of Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

For anyone who has ever been mesmerized by virtual reality, the brainstorm is obvious: Why not use that technology to distract children when they need a procedure that involves a needle?

Naturally, children (and parents) sometimes dread treatments, such as intravenous infusions. That’s why a team at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio created, tested and validated Voxel Bay, an immersive gaming environment for kids. A pilot program offered the game to children who have hemophilia and who need regular infusions of clotting factor therapy.

Even before the pilot ended, researchers heard the sounds of success: less crying, more cheering as children moved through the virtual world of Voxel Bay, said Jeremy Patterson, co-founder and Chief Creative Technology Officer at LittleSeed Inc. The sailing adventure, captained by a penguin and a seal, proved to be an effective distraction for children, which in turn helped clinicians do their jobs.

“We knew we were changing the typical dynamic in the infusion area, where children usually come in anxious or crying even before the process starts,” he said.

Needle phobia sparked the idea for Patterson, Dr. Amy Dunn and a team of clinicians and developers. Voxel Bay built upon research that showed virtual reality was helpful for adult patients during procedures, Patterson said.

“I knew there had to be a way to use this technology to make the pediatric patient experience better and to deliver care more efficiently,” he said.

But children getting infusions must keep their arms still. How could they play a game without using their hands? Patterson and the team found a solution for that, too. Patients wore lightweight headsets and used head movements and breath cues to navigate the virtual world.

The team also designed the smartphone game so nurses and family members could use a tablet to monitor a child’s progress or play along and enjoy the experience with the child. And if the child wants to exit the game, there’s an easy way to pause, Patterson said.

Improving the patient experience was essential, Patterson said, but the team also thought about healthcare providers. They didn’t want to complicate the infusion process or increase the amount of time infusions take. Voxel Bay succeeded there, too, and helped clinicians better control the infusion experience, he said.

Nationwide’s technology commercialization group is now in the final stages of licensing Voxel Bay to LittleSeed Inc for commercial use in other hospitals and clinical settings in 2019.

“I’ve spent a lot of time making educational games,” Patterson said. “For me, games are more than entertainment. Voxel Bay is not just a fun game for kids to play while they are in the hospital, but a virtual first step in redefining the pediatric patient experience.”