Hospice Savannah Implements Virtual Reality Program for Patients

An increasing number of hospice providers are incorporating virtual reality (VR) technology into patient care to help reduce pain, anxiety and feelings of isolation. Hospice Savannah worked with the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) to create a VR program that has had positive impacts on patients and students alike.

In collaboration with SCAD virtual reality professor Teri Yarbrow, Hospice of Savannah developed the VR for Good project as a virtual reality program for patients featuring three different interactive experiences — a hot air balloon ride, an undersea adventure and a farm visit — that can be used for physical and emotional therapy. The hospice’s president and CEO Kathleen Benton spearheaded a community-based collaboration to bring VR experiences to patients and families after witnessing firsthand the impacts that virtual reality can have in alleviating suffering.

A still shot of a virtual reality program that Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) students created for hospice patients. Photo courtesy of SCAD.

“I had just started at Hospice Savannah a little over a year ago when I met Teri Yarbrow, before the virtual reality program was set up as a class at SCAD and more of a vision for volunteer community work,” said Kathleen Benton, president and CEO. “As the only community non-profit hospice in town, I wanted more inner workings within community-run organizations that set us apart more for our patients and families because of the rapport already built. I had also lost a brother not too long ago who was a student there in industrial design. He was very dependent on technology as a patient himself who had a chronic and terminal illness his whole life. I can remember when the first VR came out and it helped him with anxiety and mentally just to escape the imprisonment of his bed and of his body. Proteus Syndrome had a stronghold on him every day pain- and mobility-wise. He was trapped, and VR gave that escape to him.”

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Shortly following his passing, the Daniel DeLoach Memorial Fund was established in 2017 as a foundation supporting technology for patients. The foundation helps to support the VR for Good project, and further efforts to seek technology grants are ongoing. Additional funding stems from cost-sharing partnerships, according to Benton.

“We found a way to share some costs and partnered with our amazing creators, who then did it as a class,” said Benton. “This kind of thing doesn’t have to cost a bunch of money with thousands in investment. You can buy an Oculus [virtual reality system] for a couple hundred dollars. No matter what question you ask when it comes to cost, the answer is you need to be innovative. If it’s something important to vulnerable patients who are going to pass away and need this sooner than later, then you just have to be creative. The collaborative effort we have allowed for that, we all carry different costs and different sweat equity. In the end, nothing that we’ve done has been expensive.”

SCAD began offering a bachelor of fine arts degree in immersive reality in fall of 2018, then the first dedicated degree in this field in the United States. Working with students, Yarbrow developed VR for Good with three concepts directed towards pain relief and physical therapy, with the underwater experience more passive and calming for patients while the farming experience involves more mobility.

“I see VR as promising for the future as we build a library of experiences,” said Yarbrow. “Some are more engaging and some more meditative and life-enhancing. ‘Apples and AntHills’ [virtual farm visit] is one that involves motor exercises, but there’s all different kinds of ways that you could incorporate that at a level patients are able to do. ‘Nalu’ is directed towards pain relief as very passive. You can move your hands and see bubbles around them, or look at whales, dolphins and turtles. The ‘Swimming with the Dolphins’ experience allows the patient to be a diver and facilitates swimming. You can hear the dolphins around you, you’re moving and there’s soothing music. A palliative care patient having pain came in and he watched this experience four times in a row with a gigantic smile on his face when he was done. It totally shifted whatever was going on in this perception of his pain.”

Hospice Savannah is among several providers reaching deeper into technology for patient care. VITAS Healthcare, a subsidiary of Chemed Corp. (NYSE: CHE), along with Emmanuel Hospice, added VR programming into their scope of services in 2019. Virtual reality programs are proven to alleviate feelings of isolation and help with stress relief, which have been elevated for several patients, families and caregivers during the pandemic. A recent study found that virtual reality could potentially help reduce pain in adults suffering with chronic conditions.

A Hospice Savannah patient uses virtual reality to manage symptoms. Photo courtesy of SCAD.

Both patient and student responses to the VR programming have been positive since beginning the collaboration with SCAD and offering the first class at the university this past spring.

“One of the key elements we included in our VR experiences to help people with serious pain and illness was the feeling of escape and distraction. Through this amazing technology, our VR for Good class hoped to bring exciting new experiences that will give a few joyful moments to people who are suffering and improve the lives of patients, said Maya Peleg, a junior at SCAD pursuing a bachelor of fine arts degree in animation and immersive reality from Herzliya, Israel. Peleg helped to create the “Nalu” underwater experience. “I have Multiple Sclerosis (MS), which is a neurological condition, and I have personally experienced VR therapy. I’m a certified master scuba diver, and when I was first diagnosed with MS I thought I would never be able to dive again. Being able to create a VR experience for people who thought they would never get to scuba dive, travel or roast marshmallows again is an amazing and extremely rewarding experience.”

As Yarbrow shared with Hospice News, one group among those working on the underwater VR experience were so inspired they went on to form a company, Seventh Heaven VR, providing customized VR ‘bucket list’ experiences for those on hospice and palliative care.

The hospice plans to work with SCAD students to expand the VR experience offerings with some “bucket list” trips to Savannah tourist spots such as Tybee Island, Forsyth Park and Broughton Street, allowing patients to revisit familiar landscapes while attracting national attention to the expand use of VR programming in hospice and palliative care.

“Doing regular VR with a patient is on the cutting edge of some of the greatest health problems that we have, it is also a science behind the opioid crisis. If we can lessen some of that drug use and all the side effects that go with them through VR, that is a real, long-term goal,” Benton told Hospice News. “I see growth in the VR field as being a big deal. I want to be a conduit for other hospices across the nation not just to offer the bare bones minimal that we need to have to be reimbursed, but all of the things that a patient really needs. We should all have this right alongside our music and massage therapies. VR should be happening to offer patients something beyond their limitations. There’s a way for other hospices to do this in a similar template to ours.”


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