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UCLH Charity helps fund immersive virtual reality app at UCLH

From gaming to wellbeing. How UCLH Doctor, Chris Evans is using immersive virtual reality as a tool to improve anxiety for young patients approaching surgery.

Every year, over 500,000 children undergo elective surgery in the UK and 67% percent of these will experience anxiety on the day of surgery. Anxiety can have significant implications on the overall outcomes of the procedure, and can cause problems such as nightmares, bedwetting and poor wound healing.

In an effort to reduce anxiety and subsequent complications for his patients, Dr Chris Evans has designed an app that uses virtual reality as an exciting and fun way to explain the hospital process to children prior to a procedure. Looking into the cardboard VR set, children of ages three to twelve can take a stroll around UCLH from the comfort of their own home.

Chris explains, “The idea is to scope out the hospital environments before they arrive to prepare children for what is to come. Animated characters also explain the process and how they might feel, and this can significantly reduce anxiety on the day of operation.”

The Little Journey VR set consists of a low-cost cardboard virtual reality headset which is used alongside a smart-phone with the downloaded Little Journey app. Looking into the set; patients see a 360 degree view of the ward, anaesthetic rooms and recovery rooms that they’ll visit on the day. Each step of surgery is explained by animated characters of UCLH staff that are triggered by the patient, which means that the programme is interactive and children are more likely to pay attention.

With help of the play fund, UCLH Charity asked a young patient, Fortesa Pilana (pictured), nine years old, to test the app. Commenting on the fun designs and interactivity, she says: “The koala-nurse and the other animals explained what would happen for children who are about to have an operation. This was easy to understand and it was really fun looking around the room and finding things. My favourite animal was the little tiger."

Fortesa’s mother, Rabije Pilana observed her using the app, and said that it was great to see her enjoying something that feels like a game but has educational and informative purposes.

Rabije says, “I can definitely see how this would reduce anxiety before a procedure and make children more confident in the hospital environment generally”, before adding that she would definitely use an app like this if Fortesa or other children were having a procedure in the hospital again.

Use of the Little Journey VR set is currently being trialled by children undergoing dental surgery at UCLH and success will also be determined by recovery time and behavioural cues before and after using the app. If it is proven to reduce anxiety on the day of surgery, it will be used for children throughout UCLH, including blood tests, imaging studies and cancer treatment. It could also be rolled out across hospitals in the UK.

The app can be downloaded from any App Store by searching for Little Journey, and can be used in 2D or 3D alongside a virtual reality cardboard headset.