Virtual reality field trips improve wellbeing for end-of-life cancer patients

Hospice patients in Staffordshire went on virtual trips to the countryside, both in Britain and abroad

8th September 2022 about a 3 minute read
“What I can see is something I’m never going to do in real life again, I’m never going to go to the Peak District again, I’m never going up a mountain. So this helps me to feel like I am.” Patient at Katharine House Hospice

A project to provide terminally ill patients with virtual reality (VR) field outings to places like the Peak District, Scotland and Thailand has been a “huge success”, with all participants reporting that the experience made them feel happier.

Ben Malone wanted to provide evidence that a virtual field trip could have “a positive effect on mental health and wellbeing”, so he teamed up with Keele University and the NHS Midlands Partnership NHS to create Project Vae. It received £9,960 from the National Lottery Community Fund, which was used to purchase equipment and to create some of the experiences.

During the pilot project, which ran for seven weeks, eight patients and three partners at the Katharine House Hospice (KHH) in Staffordshire wore VR headsets to pay virtual visits to six different locations: Germany, Scotland, Cornwall, the Peak District, Liverpool Albert Dock and Thailand. The participants filled out a question at the beginning and end of the study, and all reported improved feelings of wellness and happiness.

Touched by happiness

Malone told Health Tech World that one couple were so excited about their virtual trip to Cornwall, that they showed up in summer hats, sunglasses and even towels: “This for me, was such a wholesome and heartwarming moment, to see two people so excited to experience one of the videos that they made the effort to get dressed up, meant a great deal to me.”

Comments from the patients were overwhelmingly positive. One said: “What I can see is something I’m never going to do in real life again, I’m never going to go to the Peak District again, I’m never going up a mountain. So this helps me to feel like I am.”

He added that Malone had “brought something into my life that I never had. I’ve been touched by the happiness of being up there, and being in those places.”

Malone himself described the project as “one of the best seven weeks of my life, to have something I had worked towards for so long, not only work, but have such a profound effect on the participants, meant everything to me.”

He plans to make the VR platform commercially available in 2023. Care institutions will be able to purchase a hardware bundle and then pay a monthly or annual fee to access the VAE app, with its library of VR experiences. Care staff will be able to control the VR headsets remotely. It also allows for simultaneous and synchronised playback across multiple devices.

Malone said he thought VR could help people in “loads of different ways”, adding: “There are so many potential use cases for VR with elderly and vulnerable people. Genuinely, the opportunities are endless.”

FCC Insight

Although this is a small study, the results were overwhelmingly positive. Virtual reality is a technology that shows a lot of untapped potential for therapeutic use with people experiencing mental ill-health, and research has shown that it can alleviate symptoms in patients with conditions such as depression, anxiety and PTSD. As with all new technologies, we have to be careful not to be carried away by the hype, and recognise that VR cannot completely replace traditional treatment such as medication and talking therapies. But it certainly seems likely that the technology can offer benefits when used alongside those treatments.