VR App Helps Nervous Children Prepare For MRI Scan

Because who doesn’t love being strapped inside a noisy, confined space for over an hour?
MRI, or “magnetic resonance imaging,” utilizes a combination of powerful radio waves  and magnetic field gradients to safely generate images of persons internal organs. They’re absolutely painless, side effect-free, and one of the intimidating producers a child can endure while at a hospital.
Despite remaining a completely painless radiology technique in which professionals can safely inspect the internals of a patient without the risk of radiation exposure, MRI scans can be a terrifying experience for younger children, due in large part to the lengthy-process, confined space, and loud noises as a result of the complex machinery.

Jonathan, Ashmore, an MRI physicist with the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, is all too familiar with the fears children have towards the life-saving, but intimidating, medical device. With an office adjacent to his hospitals MRI exam room, Ashmore hears the cries of terrified children on a regular basis, growing sympathetic to their trauma in the process.
“I’ve seen adults collapse in tears at the thought of going in, so for children it can be particularly traumatic,” spoke the accomplished British physicist in a self-published article on The Guardian. “Often the only option is to put the child to sleep, a procedure that is costly, adds risk and is also quite scary.”
“If the child is scared beforehand, then by the time they get to the scanner it’s too late to prepare them for the ordeal and make them feel comfortable,” continues Ashford.

Armed with these realizations, Ashmore went to work developing a tool to better help incoming patients mentally prepare for the cramped and loud space. Turning to VR technology, the physicist began developing a 360-degree virtual experience designed to expose patients to the uncomfortable environment created by an MRI machine.
“Altogether it took more than a year and a half to create the app and after enlisting the help of a developer and some colleagues in Belfast, we had a finished product. The app utilises 360-degree videos from within an MR scanner. It’s free and allows children to experience their upcoming scan in virtual reality, helping them to understand and prepare for what is often a difficult and scary experience.”

According to Ashmore, the results so far have proven extremely effective.
“We trialled it on a handful of young patients and the response was unanimous: children seemed to love it. We even had fights breaking out among siblings in the waiting areas as they all wanted a go. Some children exclaimed they were even excited to come in for their scan.”
Even more surprising, however, were the effects on the parents. Providing a preview of the experience to the guardians eased their concerns regarding the procedure, in turn creating a more comfortable and relaxed environment for the child.

Currently the app is being utilized King’s College Hospital in London, the Royal Belfast Hospital, and Raigmore Hospital in Inverness. The app is under ongoing development at Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospital and Southampton Hospital. Ashmore hopes to develop a similar VR experience in the future tailored specifically to adult patients.
While there are plenty of half-baked attempts at an MRI simulator floating around the web, Ashmore offers a more polished experience designed from the ground up by a team of medical professionals well-versed in the field.
“Children embrace VR technology much like my generation embraced the original computer – and like the computer, I think it’s only a matter of time before VR becomes part of our everyday lives.”
Image Credit: Jonathan Ashmore / Royal Belfast Hospital /  Raigmore Hospital
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