Virtual reality has a role to play in cancer treatment and prevention

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

B:y Andrew Zaleski


Matthew Stoudt offers a simple test for anyone doubting the effect virtual reality could have on a hospital patient. He leads people to the edge of a ledge with a 500-foot drop. Then he asks them to take a step. Some of the 3,000 people who have taken his test do. But many, including one CEO, do not.

Of course, these aren’t actual jumps. The entire time, the person is wearing a pair of virtual reality goggles, taking in this ledge experience in the virtual world. But Stoudt, the CEO and cofounder of AppliedVR, offers the test to demonstrate how virtual reality can truly hijack the brain.

“We can take completely rational people who know they’re in a conference room, and they cannot take that step,” said Stoudt, whose company creates a virtual reality platform for healthcare. “We can override the rational brain and hijack the reptilian brain.”

This ability, enabled by VR technology, has the potential to transform cancer care, as Stoudt explained during the MedCity CONVERGE Conference in Philadelphia this week.

While people react differently to VR experiences, AppliedVR has demonstrated in its two years of existence that a sufficient amount of cognitive load can be generated using VR technology to not only connect patients’ minds and bodies, but also to drive positive behavior change. In cancer care, this means that patient therapy and physician education could be improved with minimal cost to hospital systems.

On the patient side, VR technology can reduce anxiety and influence patients to change their personal health behaviors during their cancer treatment. The person undergoing chemotherapy for esophageal cancer, for instance, might don VR goggles over several sessions to gain an intimate understanding of how smoking affects the body, and be motivated to quit smoking as a result.

“We can actually help them tailor their own therapeutic experience and do it in a cost effective way,” Stoudt said.

AppliedVR, which is currently in use at 50 different healthcare and hospital systems, including the Mayo Clinic, Cedars Sinai, and the Boston Children’s Hospital, has conducted tests that Stoudt said showed that VR can motivate behavior change. In partnership with Cedars Sinai, the Hearst Foundation, and the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, AppliedVR used its technology with roughly 70 patients with hypertension. The patients were shown, virtually, how too much salt intake affects the heart and the blood, leading to higher blood pressure. After the VR trial, patients overall saw a drop in their blood pressure of seven points.

“You can use VR to focus on the consequences of your actions,” he said.

VR technology can also help physicians treating cancer patients, either by allowing them to conduct a trial run of tumor-removal surgery or build empathy with cancer patients as they’re explaining diagnoses and possible treatments.

“You can actually let [doctors] sit in the shoes of a patient … and feel what it’s like when you’re getting that diagnosis,” said Stoudt.