Young patients are using Virtual Reality goggles to experience what radiotherapy is like before they come to Peter Mac for treatment, as part of a ground-breaking trial funded by the Robert Connor Dawes Foundation.

The trial, also involving the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI), is understood to be the first to use VR in this setting and it is already showing positive results in reducing anxiety.

Ultimately it is hoped VR will enable more children to receive their precision radiation therapy treatment without the need for sedation.

“Radiotherapy can be a challenging experience even for our adult patients as they must lay very still on a large machine, usually with a mask or other cover to prevent body movement,” says Nigel Anderson, Principal Research Radiation Therapist at Peter Mac.

“Many children require general anaesthesia for each treatment session, to ensure they lay still and we can successfully target their tumour.

“It is hoped that by experiencing this in VR - in a supportive environment and well before they arrive for treatment - that more children can have this treatment without the need for sedation.”

Participating families receive a set of VR goggles loaded with a purpose-created VR video. Young patients watch this in the safety of their own home. They get a treatment-like experience where they can look around the radiotherapy machine, see how it works and learn what to expect.

The first child patients were enrolled into the Paediatric Virtual Reality project in May, and up to 50 will take part. Families later complete a questionnaire and results should be known in 2019.

Principal Research Radiation Therapist Nigel Anderson with Olivia, the first young patient involved in the VR trial

Early patient and family feedback indicates reduced anxiety, and improved understanding of the radiotherapy process for not only patients and families but broader support networks. Some children have taken their VR googles to school to give their classmates a better understanding of what they’re going through.

The VR video was created by Melbourne-based immersive technology company Phoria, with funding from the Victorian Paediatric Integrated Cancer Service.

The project is among the first innovative applications of VR technology in Melbourne’s Parkville medical precinct.  At Peter Mac, VR goggles have been used as an immersive diversion for patients with needle phobias, and during dental procedures.

At The Royal Children’s Hospital, MCRI is currently showing short VR experiences - such as a visit to the zoo or nature experiences - to children admitted for cancer treatment. MCRI is also evaluating the potential psychological benefits of this immersive technology for children in hospital settings.

“VR technology has immense potential when it comes to improving how we deliver healthcare – and this goes beyond the obvious as an educational tool - to interventions which can be have immediate psychological benefits for patients and can influence treatment outcomes,” says Dr Maria McCarthy, Research Fellow at MCRI.

“We’ve seen the cost of VR technology come down ensuring there is now little barrier to its application to a wider array of treatment settings.”

The VR goggles used in the Paediatric Virtual Reality project are similar to the cost of a smart phone. The project’s supporters also include The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation, AA Holdings Pty Ltd along with RCDF.

“Our son, Connor had radiation at Peter Mac and experienced the wonderful team dedicated to making every part of the radiation ‘experience’ as seamless as possible,” says Liz Dawes, founder and CEO of the Robert Connor Dawes Foundation.

“We are grateful we can fund the VR goggles in hopes of helping prepare children and reduce stress relating to their radiation treatment.”