Thanks to a Cardiff-based company, DR.VR, a virtual reality distraction therapy solution that provides pain relief for patients, is now being used to help mothers in childbirth.

Pain, whether acute, intermittent, or chronic, can drastically affect quality of life, productivity, and performance, taking its toll on individuals as well as society as a whole. In the US alone, the estimated costs of direct healthcare for treating pain combined with the loss incurred due to lack of productivity amount to a staggering $560 to $635 billion annually. But in the fight against pain, stress and anxiety, virtual reality (VR) now offers promising solutions in a host of healthcare situations, most notably childbirth. Providing a distraction solution aimed at alleviating discomfort and pain, VR cognitively removes certain stigma that trigger those sensations thanks to a combination of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic stimuli, creating a highly immersive experience.

The therapy was developed by Rescape Innovation, an immersive technology company based in Cardiff, Wales. Thus far, DR.VR has been deployed in a number of charities and hospitals, on burn, cancer and palliative care patients. It also comes with a junior version for younger patients. But more recently, it has shown great promise in maternity care, helping expectant mothers to endure stresses during pregnancy and early stages of labor.

According to Glenn Hapgood, Rescape’s Commercial Director, the attempt to use DR.VR in maternity care is a natural outcome of the company’s initial effort to design VR experiences that walk patients through their first MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan, reducing anxiety among prospective cancer patients as they are about to receive their official diagnoses. Through these efforts, the company discovered that VR therapies could potentially minimize tension and prevent patient no-show as they become more mentally prepared for the next step of their medical journey.

“We thought maternity care would be a natural fit,” says Hapgood. “After all, there are many drug-free therapies like Lamaze breathing, mindfulness and other relaxation techniques, being made available. There are a lot of challenges here though. Pain and anxiety cannot be 100% managed. In addition, drugs cannot be administered in view of the unborn, and most people just do not have the time to practice these so-called non-invasive techniques to an expert level that will truly help them when needed.”

So Hapgood hit upon an immersive experience, embedded in a handy kit, that would get more people trained in the quickest possible time, allowing individuals to use it on their own. “One of my wife’s labors lasted 24 hours and she could have easily had this VR distraction therapy for the first 12 hours, to lessen her pain and stress,” says Hapgood. “Similarly, if the expectant individual is about to receive a caesarean section, the VR therapy can give them a head start on what to expect. We also found that the same VR therapy helps new mothers who are experiencing difficulties in breast feeding, to reduce their stress and produce more milk,”

To ensure the curated content was suitable for expectant mothers, Rescape collaborated with three national midwifery departments, testing the VR kit on their staff in return for constructive feedback. Currently, the product is being trialled in a number of national midwifery teams around the UK with the actual version being made available on the market in early 2020.

“We have a very strict and robust research and development process for all of our products,” says Hapgood. Motion sickness is a key consideration and something Glenn and his team pay close attention to. At times, medication side effects could worsen any woozy sensation, thus resolution and frame rate have to be of the highest quality. Also, the length of each VR experience is kept at 7.5 minutes

“We found any experience less than four minutes does not deliver the prolonged effect of reducing pain and anxiety once the headset is removed,” he says. “Engagement level decreases as the experience gets longer, so the best results were achieved when the experience reaches the 7-8 minutes mark. That’s when patients feel lees self-conscious, while it’s neither too short for a sustainable impact after the headset is removed”.

At the moment, VR for healthcare is still at its infancy stage within the UK and the National Health Service (NHS) does not have a budget to adopt it clinically, hence, Rescape is also providing a lot of public education on top of continuous research and validation. “We have to bring DR.VR forefront,” says Hapgood. “We support many health boards with their events and attend numerous patients meetings. We also run many free trials and offer free training, hoping to change people’s natural scepticism towards new technologies, into a huge supporting force.”

“We have to take a bottom-up approach. The procurement of NHS requires three examples of the same technology for them to choose from. However, unlike the US and Australia, there is nothing similar in the UK as of now and without any predecessor, the next option we have is to bring the solution directly to the clinicians.”