SMILING new friends and a warm welcome for a story around a crackling campfire. It’s an idyllic scene some people will join this Christmas season thanks to the gift of virtual reality.
Medibank is trialling “Joy” virtual reality goggles to give lonely hospital patients virtual friends following research showing while Christmas generally is a time of family and fellowship, for some it is a time of sad isolation. This can be worse for people in hospital with no family to cheer them up and can have adverse health effects.
The lightweight goggles with in-built sound transport users to an animated world where they join a circle of six people around a campfire in the Australian bush, with a sleepy dog, a distant waterfall tumbling down an ochre mountain to a creek, blue sky and lush trees.
The images are designed to evoke inclusion and calmness. After a warm welcome, the group suggests the user pick one of five stories, ranging from 15 minutes to an hour.
The Google goggles with animation by virtual reality specialists Liminal are being trialled at St Andrews Hospital and hospitals in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, with the aim of cheering people up to speed their recovery.
More may be sent out for year-round free use after Medibank assesses the trial. Medibank Chief Medical Officer Dr Linda Swan said the increased emphasis on family and togetherness at Christmas could heighten feelings of social isolation for some people.
She noted loneliness was linked to depressive symptoms, risk of cardiovascular issues, a weakened immune system and could worsen existing health conditions. “We want people in hospital to be in optimal condition to recover and this virtual reality experience is a carefully researched way to deal with feelings of loneliness,” Dr Swan said.
St Andrews Hospital patient Neville Dennis, 58, from Broken Hill, was the first in Adelaide to trial the goggles after being the first in Australia to undergo experimental heart valve repair this week.
Instead of open-heart surgery, a team gained access to his heart via his groin and neck to repair the mitral valve and he only stayed in hospital overnight. “It’s been quite a 48 hours for firsts,” he said. “The goggles are wonderful, it was a really calming feeling and drew me into the story in a lovely way. Instead of staying in hospital about a week for the valve repair I just stayed overnight and played with these goggles – thank goodness for private health insurance.”
The move follows Medibank research showing about 140,000 South Australians face spending Christmas alone, and 89 per cent of those who had been patients recently felt loneliness worsened their physical and mental wellbeing while in hospital.