Calming emergency patients with virtual reality

25 Sep 2023

An innovative research project at QEII Hospital will explore whether the use of virtual reality can help reduce anxiety for patients who present to the emergency department (ED).

Led by QEII emergency clinician Dr Grace Xu, the project will focus on consenting patients who have to undergo minor but painful procedures in the emergency room and examine whether distracting them with virtual reality via headset can have a beneficial impact.

Funded by the PA Research Foundation’s emergency medicine awards program, the study is a first of its kind in the adult emergency setting, and builds upon earlier studies using virtual reality in health.

“The idea of the virtual reality is popular and really innovative and it's being used everywhere in wider society,” Dr Xu said.

“Research has been done using virtual reality in other health settings like pre-op and post-op in the theatre or with dental procedures. It hasn’t been done in adult emergency department, although we are the place where there will be most of the painful procedures.

“There's only one study that's been done in a paediatric ED environment a couple of years ago in Victoria and it only studied kids, this has never been examined in the context of helping adult ED patients.”

“We never worry about adults really, just because they are older, but they are still having fears and experiencing anxiety about procedures just as a child would, and adults are the number one group of people who are having painful procedures.”

Dr Xu and her research team will identify suitable patients through their presenting diagnosis. Once the patients consent and they will be offered the opportunity to use a virtual reality headset. The results of the research will test feasibility, accessibility and adaptability of virtual reality headsets in emergency procedures and whether patients find them helpful.

“The project is to test whether the use of virtual reality will benefit adult patients or not who are going through painful procedures in ED,” she said.

“From what we know, virtual reality can be significantly helpful in other settings. As we do many different painful procedures in the ED, we are confident virtual reality is likely to benefit our patients.”

Patients will get to choose from a variety of virtual reality themes to engage in while procedures are carried out.

“They can choose something like a walk in a calm green forest, or a place like the ocean, or up in the sky,  there is a wide range of options,” Dr Xu said.

“We just want to give them something very nice and calm, so they can immerse themself into that environment before and during the procedure.”

Dr Xu said as a clinician-researcher, she was incredibly grateful for the support of the Foundation and its donors in allowing her research to take place.

“Without this particular grant, I'm probably just going to think about the project as an idea and leave it there.”

You can support innovative research in emergency medicine such as Dr Grace Xu’s virtual reality project by making the PA Research Foundation your place to donate on the yellow donate button above.