Virtual reality can improve care for cancer patients

Showing cancer patients a 3D virtual reality view of their illness helped patients understand their disease better

1st November 2021 about a 3 minute read
“Patients really don't have a good understanding of what's happening within their bodies, and it's something that I think has plagued medicine for a long time." Dr Douglas Holt, Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center

Virtual reality (VR) software can help patients better understand their cancer, a study has found.

Research presented at the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) annual meeting in Chicago showed that using a VR volumetric imaging review helped cancer patients understand the nature and scope of their disease, as well as the reason for their treatment. Dr Douglas Holt, along with colleagues at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, carried out a study of 38 cancer patients and their caregivers. First they showed the participants 2D images of their disease on a computer screen, and then a 3D virtual reality volumetric review of imaging and intended radiation treatment targets.

To create the VR images, Holt takes patients’ CT scans, or individual image slices, and stacks them on top of one another. This produces a three-dimensional image of the patient and their tumour. Patients can then view the images using VR headsets, which enable them to see where the tumour is located in their body, what organs it is near and how large it is. While they are looking at the image, Holt can show them how their radiation treatment plan will work, as well as the size of the radiation beam and where it will be targeted.

The study found that after seeing the VR images, both the patients’ and their caregivers’ understanding of the cancer increased from a ranking of 5.6 to 9.2 out of 10 to 9.2. Their understanding of the reason for the treatment improved from 2 to 2.9 on a scale of 0 to 3.

Holt found that 97% of study participants agreed that VR should be the standard of care.

Patients’ lack of understanding has ‘plagued’ medicine

In an interview, Holt said that he was motivated to develop the VR solution to improve patients’ understanding of their illness. “Patients really don’t have a good understanding of what’s happening within their bodies, and it’s something that I think has plagued medicine for a long time,” he told the Oncology Times. “There’s some great studies showing that verbal teaching alone is the least effective teaching method. And that’s what we predominantly use in medicine.”

Holt said that patients had been overwhelmingly positive about their experience with the VR: “I had a 95-year-old woman who said, ‘I’ve had breast cancer for 4 years, and this is the first time I finally understood it.’ In my research, more than 80 percent of patients have said VR is the best educational tool they’ve come across.”