Jackie Edwards on how King’s College Hospital created a VR experience to help with the claustrophobic nature of an MRI scan.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans provide minimal risk to children, according to all the research which has been done into the procedure so far, but the benefits for a person’s health are huge. MRI scans are an essential part of diagnosing and treating a range of conditions. However, young children are often terrified and traumatised by the procedure and refuse to go into the MRI machine. In order to lower this fear, a new virtual reality (VR) app has been created in the UK. Its aim is to help NHS workers to manage the fears of young children who require medical treatment.
Essentially existing as dark, narrow tunnels, MRI scanners can trigger claustrophobia in young children. There is no pain involved, but the whole process can be unnerving. Students have previously used VR to treat anxiety and depression, so it is thought that the technology could help with medical procedures as well.
Many children reveal feelings of anxiety when visiting a hospital, GP surgery or dentist. However, the new VR app by Jonathan Ashmore is focused purely on MRI. He notes that “if the child is scared beforehand, then by the time they get to the scanner it’s too late to prepare them for the ordeal and make them feel comfortable”.
Ashmore has created the new MRI VR app along with NHS healthcare experts and a play specialist. He reports in the Guardian that: “The app utilises 360-degree videos from within an MRI scanner. It’s free and allows children to experience their upcoming scan in virtual reality, helping them to understand and prepare for what is often a difficult and scary experience”. In the way that printer technology was revolutionised by 3D printing, VR is set to introduce excitement to medical procedures, which will appeal to both kids and their concerned parents. Early test results seem to show that children absolutely love the technology.
It also has a calming effect on parents. Consider an 18 year old leaving home for college. When the teen feels relaxed and confident, it is often easier for the parents to cope with the change. When a child is nervous, their parents feel nervous too. By putting medical procedures in the form of a VR game, children see it as something fun, even exciting, which also helps their caregivers to relax.
MRI scans are just the start for the life changing benefits of VR technology. It could help with any number of phobias and mental conditions, by using the gradual exposure technique. People of any age could face their fears by doing so in a virtual world first. This helps a person to associate their phobia with something fun and harmless, so that they are less scared when they need to face it in reality. For both adults and children, this could have a profound effect.
The uses of VR are almost endless. They allow work meetings without getting out of bed, property viewings from the other side of the world and now a way for children to overcome their fear of MRI scans. This medical app could be a revolutionary new way of treating phobias. This is set to reduce fear for kids who need surgery, but could one day help any person living with anxiety or depression.
You can find a video explaining how it works below.