Immersive virtual reality ‘eases cancer patients’ distress’

Immersive virtual reality could be an effective way to help cancer patients ease their pain and distress, researchers report today.

Pooled data analysis of the available evidence shows the technology could also have potential to benefit people with other long-term conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, kidney disease and dementia.

Writing in BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care, researchers from Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, say interest in how they could be used to improve patients’ quality of life has grown.

Led by Professor Martin Dempster, they searched research databases for studies that looked at the use and effectiveness of immersive virtual reality for aiding psychological adjustment to a long-term condition in adults, finding 31 relevant studies published between 1993 and 2023.

In the studies, the technology had been used in patients with cancer, dementia, cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis, kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and had between 30 and 50 participants. On average, a virtual reality session lasted 20 minutes, ranging from one application to daily for a specified period.

The studies looked at environment-based and game-based immersive virtual reality interventions that were designed to either relax the user ahead of medical treatment or to equip them with specific skills or behaviours to help them cope better with their condition.

The pooled study results showed patients were happy to use immersive virtual reality and that it helped those with cancer, dementia, cardiovascular disease, MS and kidney disease cope better with required medical treatments and the emotional impact of their condition.

The types of virtual reality and procedures used varied widely across the included studies, and no one particular type emerged as noticeably more effective than any of the others.

However, the researchers say 13 of the 31 studies were feasibility or pilot studies, while four were considered to have a high risk of bias.

They add how immersive virtual realities affect patients is not clear, but they suggest they might distract or alter the user’s state of mind, reducing the subjective experience of pain and/or boosting their ability to cope with the physical and psychological impacts of their condition.

“These findings are promising in a population at risk of polypharmacy and suggest immersive VR can offer a non-pharmacological intervention that is considered acceptable by clinicians, caregivers, and patients,” they write.

“As VR systems become progressively more accessible, immersive VR interventions may begin to offer cost benefits compared with conventional pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments,” they add.

They call for further research to better understand how the technology works, if any type of VR is more effective, and what, if any, long-term effects there might be.

McGhee WRG, Doherty CJ, Graham-Wisener L et al. Immersive virtual reality and psychological well-being in adult chronic physical illness: systematic review. BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care 17 October 2023; doi 10.1136/spcare-2023-004502


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