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Edinburgh Hospice Trials Virtual Reality to Enrich Patients’ Lives

Dominique Adams

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VR headset

St Columba’s hospice in Edinburgh has become the first in Scotland to offer residents virtual reality experiences.  

St Columba’s Hospice in Edinburgh has become the first palliative care facility in Scotland to offer its patients the opportunity to experience travel via virtual reality (VR) technology.

Six of the hospice’s patients had the option to visit far-flung locations, or to revisit some of their favourite destinations using high-tech VR headsets.

One man opted to fulfil his life-long dream of visiting Jerusalem, while a lady who was 101 years old chose to revisit her childhood home in Darjeeling and to take a trip up the Amazon river for the first time.

On top of the travel, each of the six residents was able to enjoy an underwater sea adventure exploring a sunken wreck surrounded by stunning sea-life, including an enormous whale. One of the patients enjoyed their experience so much they joked it was almost worth being admitted to the hospice to experience VR.

While five of the six patients reported having a positive experience, one became tearful following the realisation she would never visit her favourite location again. However, the day after she said that the experience has helped her come to terms with her current situation as she approached the end of her life.

20 more patients will be able to try the headsets as part of further tests done in partnership with the hospice, Viarama, and Queen Margaret University (QMU).

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The purpose of the trial is to study the potential benefit of VR with a focus on patients’ mood, pain and stress levels, as well as overall wellbeing.

Dr Erna Haraldsdottir is Senior Lecturer in Nursing at QMU and Director of Education and Research at St Columba’s Hospice. She said: “The VR experience essentially transports individuals to another world, removing them from the reality of their situation and absorbing them in a positive experience.

“It’s liberating and exciting for them to revisit a place that sparks happy memories or to indulge in an activity that once exhilarated them. It is exciting now to progress to a research project to gather the evidence of potential benefit.

“There is little evidence of VR being used in palliative care with no published research which identifies its potential in this important area of healthcare. We now need to establish the facts with more in-depth research to understand the immediate effects and the possible longer-term impact on wellbeing and physical health.

“We are particularly keen to learn if VR sessions have the potential to alleviate symptoms in patients receiving palliative care, such as pain and anxiety levels.”

The tech was provided by VR social enterprise Viarama, which works to enrich and improve the quality of life of school children, senior citizens, and others. The company also trains people to deliver VR in facilities like hospices, nursing homes, respite centres, and schools.

Billy Agnew said: “Viarama is delighted to be, once again, working with St Columba’s Hospice and QMU. We look forward to giving many more hospice patients in Scotland the opportunity to enjoy the best VR experiences available, whilst exploring and measuring the many ways in which we believe VR helps people receiving palliative care.”

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Dominique Adams

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