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VR lab at the Ottawa Hospital

uOttawa students and the Ottawa Hospital are developing VR applications to help patients through treatment

By Helen Lam on May 22, 2019


You are on a lush mountain trail. Below you, an undulating vista of peaks and valleys stretches away into the distance. Birds soar across a crystal summer sky oblivious to goings on below. You take a deep breath, feeling calm and relaxed. Then you adjust your virtual reality (VR) headset and continue along the path.

You know the trail isn’t real, but the impact of the experience on your body is very much real. As the age of digitization dawns on every sector of society, VR environments are finding applications beyond entertainment. Dr. Justin Sutherland, a Clinical Medical Physicist at the Ottawa Hospital, wants to bring VR into patient care.

For the fifth annual Makerspace Challenge, the University of Ottawa approached Dr. Sutherland about whether he knew of a VR-related project engineering students could tackle as part of the design competition. Dr. Sutherland seized the opportunity to propose a challenge that would harness VR to help cancer patients through chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Student teams created several virtual environments designed with comfort and relaxation in mind. A winner was selected at the end of March 2019.

Photo courtesy of the uOttawa Richard L’Abbé Makerspace

The gruelling regimen of chemotherapy is taxing on patients as well as on caregivers. The anxiety and stress brought on by rounds of exhausting hospitalization have detrimental effects on overall patient well-being. Virtual environments offer a safe and cost-effective way to help patients weather the emotional ups and downs of cancer treatment. Until now, a serene mental escape from the trials of disease could only happen in the imagination. As Dr. Sutherland works towards pilot trials at the hospital, cancer patients undergoing treatments in Ottawa may soon have a new tool in their fight against the illness.

Apt613 reached out to Dr. Sutherland to learn more about the use of virtual environments in chemotherapy treatment and radiation therapy.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Apt613: Tell us about how you plan to integrate the winning scenario into everyday patient care at The Ottawa Hospital.

Dr. Justin Sutherland: We are beginning to work with stakeholders within chemotherapy and radiation therapy to get these and other calming VR applications available to patients. This will involve selecting the appropriate hardware, pilot trials, and training and supporting staff on the use of the technology. My personal hope is that these efforts become the first steps towards making this novel technology available to patients throughout the hospital, wherever it may help.

What’s the major advantage of designing VR environments for therapeutic purposes, as opposed to hooking patients up to a commercial VR game?

Commercial VR games are designed primarily for entertainment and may not be appropriate for the constraints and considerations that are relevant to a specific treatment. For example, radiation therapy patients must remain still during treatment which is typically delivered with the patient lying down. These two constraints would preclude the use of most commercial games which are designed to take advantage of the real-world motion interaction that VR affords.

“Sitting in a beautiful forest… or lying underneath a fantastic alien sky…”

Another consideration that came up during the focus group was that patients expressed that during treatment they often had difficulty concentrating, either due to being distracted, stressed and overwhelmed by the events in their life, or due to the particular course of treatment they were receiving. Commercial games are designed to be engaging and fun but are designed to be a challenge: a game is not as fun if you can’t fail. We wanted to avoid at all costs, the possibility of feeling incapable or of failing within our patients.

Additionally, chemotherapy patients, in particular, can be nauseated even by objects moving around them. One example presented to us was the motion of waves on a beach being a capable of making a patient feel ill.

Jennifer Shamess from the Ottawa Hospital’s Patient and Family Advisory Council experienced a VR demo at the latest Makerspace Challenge.

What kind of feedback have you received from patients who have tried the virtual environments?

We have not reached the point of having current patients experience the technology. Previous patients who are part of the Patient Family Advisory Council—a group who the hospital works with to improve care based on the patient experience—were impressed with the scenarios and applications that the students came up with. They were amazed by the possibilities for escape into calming environments that the recent advances in VR technology affords

How do see the use of VR evolving for cancer treatment as technology advances?

One exciting application of the technology is the possibility of connecting people. Networked applications, where multiple people inhabit the same virtual environment, are currently available among the commercial games and applications. We had one student work this possibility into his project. Allowing family or friends to support their loved ones, even from across the country, by say, sitting with them in a beautiful forest while they are receiving a chemo infusion, or lying beside them underneath a fantastic alien sky during their radiation therapy treatment, would be pretty incredible.

“There are endless possibilities.”

If you could create an ideal VR environment for yourself, what would it look like?

I could never pick just one. VR lets you inhabit whatever environment you can imagine—or create. At home with my personal-use headset I’ve put my friends on mountain cliffs, shown my 94-year-old grandmother a blue whale up close in an underwater ship wreck, explained the solar system to my two young boys while they were in outer space, and let my father fly around the world and inhabit Google Earth images of his childhood neighbourhood as if he were there. There are endless possibilities.