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VA Integrates Extended Reality Technology Across Sites and Treatments

To renew health care, the Veterans Affairs Department is deploying immersive extended reality technology that can transport patients to an art museum, the beach, or anywhere else – without ever leaving their hospital bed.

Extended Reality or XR is an umbrella term that includes virtual, extended, and mixed realities. Each in its own way essentially expands or simulates the world that humans experience with the help of wearable headsets. Last fall, the Veterans Health Administration approved the XR networkwho teaches veterans in the United States these new technologies in sessions that address challenges such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and chronic pain. VHA now has more than 50 locations using XR and more than 200 VA employees are actively involved in the XR network.

The agency this week confirmed plans to manage the very first pilot project to improve the quality of the network at multiple locations.

“The aim of this pilot project is to determine the benefits of VR in the risk assessment of falls, neurological risk assessment, palliative care, procedural application, the treatment of acute and / or chronic pain and anxiety”, Dr. Anne Lord Bailey, Chair of the XR Network and an emerging clinical specialist in VHA, said Nextgov In an email from Friday.VA, frontline workers, researchers, medical experts and outside actors from other agencies, as well as the academic and private sectors, are tied into the network, which is growing all the time. Previously, XR initiatives were isolated across the company. By and large, attendees aim to scale XR across the enterprise and support facilities every step of the way in projects.

To date, nearly 300 sessions have been held using the technology as a kind of distraction tool to manage pain, stress, boredom, and restlessness in patients – and to aid relaxation, according to VA’s recent announcement. Those who experienced pain saw a 61% decrease in intensity, and 100% of participating veterans who used it to treat anxiety felt a decrease in that feeling. Of these veterans, 67% showed an increase in calm and cooperative behavior.

“These specific sessions were around [the Western North Carolina VA Health Care System], in Asheville, NC, “explained Bailey. “More websites have made strides to bring this into the hands of veterans as well.” VA’s Reno, Nevada facility said it completed just over 200 sessions for pain, mood enhancement, and functional movement.

A one-pager produced by the VHA Innovation Ecosystem that is shared with Nextgov offers a glimpse into the immersion therapy work unfolding in Asheville. The current program offers veterans nearly a dozen virtual reality options to choose from – activities like walks in the woods or on the beach, exploring museums, shooting snowballs at targets, and more. Other options are also under development. VR immersion has in some instances helped reduce veterans’ use of opioids for discomfort relief, the document says.

Nextgov Also reviewed some anonymized patient data collected in this paper, capturing hundreds of different interactions with XR and qualitative statements from veterinarians about their experience with the technology.

“It leads me into another reality, everything feels freer there,” said one.

Although some were skeptical that it would completely relieve their pain, many said the experience was a major distraction from what they were feeling before the treatment. For some, it brought back memories or, in some ways, relieved stress. One veteran reported feeling sick from the experience – but many others asked for more ways to incorporate it into their therapies.

“It was like watching a good movie – you don’t want it to end,” remarked another.

The XR Network is planning an all-hands virtual meeting for the end of the month and its first multi-site pilot project that will examine multiple inpatient and outpatient use cases.

“This pilot is being used in 11 different VA medical centers,” said Bailey. This includes facilities in Virginia, California, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, and more. Feedback will be sought from veterans and clinicians on how the technology could support fall risk assessments and neurological risk assessments in life-threatening diseases, as well as pain and stress relief. Those involved will use headsets equipped with a variety of use case-based software.

“Clinics will be trained in VR use and will receive relevant infection control instructions, templates for standardized documentation in the patient record, and a guide to answering questions related to performing a VR pilot in their facility,” said Bailey.