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Trial Testing VR to Relieve Cancer Patient Distress

Man in VR headset

(Tima Miroshnichenko, Pexels)

7 Mar. 2023. A clinical trial is underway assessing virtual reality interventions for relieving distress and improve the quality of life for cancer patients receiving bone marrow transplants. The study is conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, testing technology created by Rocket VR Health Inc. in Wakefield, Mass.

Patients with cancer often deal with psychological as well as physical challenges. When people learn they have cancer, says National Cancer Institute, it’s not unusual for them to feel overwhelmed and angry, with fear and worry about their own futures and the need to care for their families. Higher stress levels can also result in an added physical burden in patients that slows or interferes with treatment, and increases the chance for the patient to suffer from depression. Some professional organizations now recommend screening of cancer patients for psychosocial distress as part of the standard care.

Rocket VR Health is a developer of VR technology for treating mental health disorders. The three year-old company says it offers immersive experiences with VR designed to deliver treatment techniques such as mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy for people with conditions such as anxiety and depression. Rocket VR says its virtual experiences can be personalized with different environments, activities, and music to meet individual needs of users.

The company is already working with cancer care providers to help patients deal with psychological problems associated with the disease. In August 2022, Rocket VR began a feasibility study of its meditation program with cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy at University of Pennsylvania medical center. And in May 2022, Science & Enterprise reported on Rocket VR Health’s collaboration with  University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada to evaluate virtual reality that offers mindfulness for relieving pain in cancer patients.

Psychosocial skill building

The new clinical trial is testing VR for relieving distress among patients at Mass. General Hospital receiving bone marrow transplants for treating blood-related cancers. People receiving bone marrow transplants sometimes face extended time in the hospital with greater risks of complications, leading to increased stress and a lower quality of life. The study is enrolling 80 participants receiving bone marrow transplants randomly assigned to receive the usual care at Mass. General plus Rocket VR’s virtual reality sessions, or the usual care alone.

The Rocket VR intervention in this case is a six-part program over four weeks with educational sessions on preparedness and managing expectations, as well as psychosocial skill building to help cope and accept uncertainty with treatment outcomes and self-care to enhance the patient’s sense of control when changing to out-patient care after hospitalization. Participants are asked to complete questionnaires at the start and four different points up to 24 weeks following enrollment, either in-person or remotely. Rocket VR and Mass. General collaborated on development of the program.

The study team is looking mainly at feasibility of VR therapy for cancer stress, defined as at least 60 percent of participants using the technology to complete at least 60 percent of the program. The researchers are also measuring quality of life, anxiety and depression symptoms, post-traumatic stress disorder, and several other indicators of coping, optimism, and usability before, during, and after the program.

“The capacity to use VR,” says Areej El-Jawahri, co-lead investigator of the project and director of the Bone Marrow Transplant Survivorship Program at Mass. General in a Rocket VR statement released through Cision, “to improve the physical and psychological well-being of patients with cancer enduring prolonged hospitalization, can increase access and potential for scalability and dissemination of this supportive care platform.”

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