VITAS and AT&T Exploring Virtual Reality Technology in Hospice Care

VITAS Healthcare, the largest provider of hospice care in the United States, and communications giant AT&T are collaborating to develop alternative therapies using 5G virtual reality systems to reduce chronic pain and anxiety among hospice patients.

The companies in January launched a study at a Southern California cancer center to evaluate virtual and augmented reality programs based on patient feedback, the effectiveness of the programs’ content, and technology delivery options.

“We’re always looking for opportunities to enhance the patient experience and bring comfort to our patients and their families as they receive end-of-life care,” said Patrick Hale, chief information officer of VITAS Healthcare. “We not only chose AT&T for its technology expertise, but for its vision to use technology to help improve care. Our goal is to eventually expand VR and AR capabilities to our hospice patients across the country that could benefit from them.”

The study focuses on two modules, the first tests how the program’s content affects patients. For example, a patient may soothe anxiety by taking a virtual walk through a field to a tranquil stream or virtually wandering the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. Patients will use Magic Leap One Lightwear headsets to view the content.

The second module addresses how mobile networks can support the technology.  With most hospice patients receiving care in their homes, hospice staff will need to download or stream large video files.

AT&T is providing the video content and mobility network for the study. They will use a 5G mobile hotspot to test download and streaming capabilities.

“VR and AR has the potential to be a new alternative therapy that will hopefully benefit patients by decreasing symptom burden while increasing quality of life,” said Joseph Shega, M.D., senior vice president and chief medical officer of VITAS Healthcare. “Moreover, the technology could offer a unique opportunity for patients and families to do things virtually that were previously not possible in a physical sense, such as traveling to remote destinations together.”

The two companies previously collaborated in 2015 to develop mobile workstations that VITAS employees used to reduce time spent on training, patient admissions, and logistics in order to increase face-to-face time with patients. According to AT&T, VITAS staff reduced time spend on logistical phone calls by 30 percent. Nearly 88 percent of VITAS patients have been admitted using the device since its introduction.

“Our work with VITAS demonstrates the digital transformation taking place in another important part of the health care spectrum,”, said Mo Katibeh, chief marketing officer, AT&T Business. “Providers are trying to use technology in unique ways to improve care for their patients.”

Clinical evidence indicates that virtual reality shows promise as a non-pharmacological treatment for pain and anxiety.

A 2017 study in JMIR Mental Health, a sister publication to the Journal of Medical Internet Research, found that viewing calming videos through virtually reality headsets reduced pain levels in hospitalized patients. The fifty study participants who used virtual reality systems reported a 24 percent reduction in pain scores using the Numeric Pain Rating Scale from zero to 10.  

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