Each year, around 750 children aged 14 years or under are diagnosed with cancer in Australia. Those children often undergo multiple treatments and procedures that are invasive, painful and can have significant psychological effects.
Researchers at La Trobe University and National University of Singapore are investigating how virtual reality technologies may provide a supportive care tool in pain management for paediatric cancer patients.
“Children diagnosed with paediatric cancer have to manage several stressors including diagnosis, hospitalisation, social exclusion and disruption to daily routines,” explains Dr Kevin Yap. “They are often at risk of developing depression. Feelings of distress can worsen pain sensations, which can cause further anxiety and fear of medical procedures.”
In a paper published in Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, Dr Kevin Yap and his team have conducted a systematic review examining the physiological and psychological efficacy of virtual reality for paediatric cancer patients, and the implications on treatment outcomes.
“Virtual reality is a well-established distraction intervention for children’s pain relief in burn care, dental care, and in acute settings where patients undergo routine procedures such as intravenous placements,” says Yap.
“And, an emerging body of work in the paediatric cancer space is reporting similar, promising results for the management of pain and distress. At this stage, its efficacy on psychological symptoms like anxiety, fear, and depression is inconclusive because few studies reported on these outcomes.”
The strong association between physiological and psychological responses, Yap suggests, indicates that bespoke, immersive experiences may have a supportive role to play in managing psychological responses.
“Highly immersive virtual reality experiences engage multiple senses,” says Yap. “They enhance the sensation of being in the virtual environment and feeling connected to a world outside the physical body.”
“Narrative engagement and interactivity also contribute to a positive experience, which could benefit paediatric pain management.”
Yap notes that virtual reality is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, but one that needs to be personalised and appropriate to the clinical environment. “Short, invasive procedures may need virtual reality systems that only require head movements, while chemotherapy treatments, which entail longer durations, may allow for the use of more complex systems that feature handheld controllers and headsets.”
And while the investment may be more costly than other established methods of distraction, Yap suggests that clinically appropriate virtual reality solutions provide an alternative that will positively engage this special population group.
“As virtual reality continues to evolve, we hope that more studies will tap into its potential to improve the quality of life and treatment outcomes for paediatric patients with cancer,” he says.