Hoag utilizes virtual reality technology to ease emotional toll of caring for critically ill patients

Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian is exploring new ways to support employees on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the launch of CenteredVR, a virtual reality-based mindfulness and stress management program developed by BehaVR, Hoag is among the first health care facilities in the nation to deploy virtual reality therapies to frontline workers. Piloting with nurses in Hoag’s COVID-19 unit, CenteredVR is a potential tool to help health care workers reduce chronic stress, build resilience and enhance coping skills.

“We have seen the power of virtual reality-enabled programming to support the mental health and well-being of our patients, so it was a natural fit for us to offer a tool like CenteredVR to our nurses,” said Robert Louis, M.D., Chief of Neurosurgery and the Empower360 Endowed Chair for Skull Base and Minimally Invasive Neurosurgery, Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute at Hoag. “Mindfulness practices are shown to reduce chronic stress and CenteredVR combines those principles with the neurological and psychological power of virtual reality, offering our nurses new resources to reduce stress and improve their overall health.”

Hoag utilizes Dr. Louis

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Robert Louis, M.D., Chief of Neurosurgery and the Empower360 Endowed Chair for Skull Base and Minimally Invasive Neurosurgery, Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute at Hoag

Early results on CenteredVR’s impact on users’ stress levels have been positive. Among those who have used the program to date, stress levels decreased, on average, by a reported 34 percent.

“Prioritizing our team’s mental health and well-being is always something top-of-mind, especially after the challenging year we faced with the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Rick Martin, Ed.D, MSN, RN, senior vice president, clinical operations and chief nursing officer of Hoag. “When we introduced the CenteredVR program, nearly two-thirds of our nursing staff in the COVID-19 unit signed up to participate and we’ve continued to receive positive feedback on the program’s impact in their day-to-day lives.”

CenteredVR was developed in collaboration with Johns Hopkins Medicine. The program gradually guides individuals through a soothing, immersive VR experience that helps alleviate stress through educational elements and mindfulness practices. Over the course of six, 20-minute sessions, which can be done in the safety and comfort of their own homes, users learn to optimize their stress responses, becoming less reactive and more resilient to stressors. 

“Stress and burnout among health care workers is not a new phenomenon, but the unrelenting pace and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken these common challenges to new, unimaginable heights, bringing sustained, intense levels of stress,” said Aaron Gani, CEO of BehaVR. “We are pleased to bring CenteredVR to health care settings. VR has shown that it can mitigate the effects of chronic stress, reduce anxiety, improve coping skills, and enhance the overall mental health and well-being of those who use it. We are hopeful that CenteredVR can bring these benefits to our nation’s tireless and dedicated health care workers.”

Hoag has been at the forefront of integrating virtual reality across a broad range of specialties, including neurosciences, heart, cancer and maternity care. Most recently, Hoag created NutureVR, a 14-week perinatal VR program designed in partnership with BehaVR to give expectant mothers access to educational material, meditation capabilities and other immersive experiences all in a virtual reality headset.

“Hoag has incorporated VR technology to assist surgeons with operations since 2015, and the hospital remains a leader in using VR with patients for pain management, patient education and mindfulness,” said Dr. Louis. “We can see on functional MRIs that VR decreases a patient’s focus on the pain, eases the emotional unpleasantness of pain and even diminishes the physical sensation of pain, itself. When you see the before and after, it’s amazing.”