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Eskenazi Health tries virtual reality for ICU patients

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) -- Physicians at Eskenazi Health in Indianapolis are testing a new way to treat the mental health of their critically ill patients: virtual reality. 

Dr. Dmitriy Golovyan, an internal medicine fellow at the Indiana University School of Medicine, says for years critical care physicians have patted themselves on the back for keeping a patient alive and discharging them back home. However, he says those patients suffered from serious long-term mental and emotional health effects due to their long stay in the intensive care unit. 

"Memory loss, anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress for years, and that's something that we haven't recognized until the last five to 10 years," said Golovyan. "Virtual reality has been shown to decrease pain and decrease anxiety, so we thought, 'What if we made an environment custom made for the intensive care unit?'" 

Working in cooperation with IUPUI School of Informatics and Computing, a pilot program launched in the Eskenazi Health ICU where patients donned a headset and experienced a virtual reality adventure for 10-15 minutes from their hospital bed. 

"What we're going to do is start them out in a hospital room, and when they begin, they will hear a voice, a very nice calm voice, telling them that they're in the ICU and to help them with their stay in the ICU, they're going to be able to take a journey outside," explained Wendy Krogg, from the IUPUI School of Informatics, showing how the virtual reality hospital room fades into a park similar to Eagle Creek Park, where patients can ride a tram line and eventually travel to a beach or a sculpture garden. 

"You're distracting them from really being where they are," said Chauncey Frend of the UITS Advanced Visualization Laboratory who assists IUPUI students. "It's essentially a magic trick. It's really important to do it right because really your brain is the last component in that scenario."

Golovyan explained the program could have huge implications for healthcare. He hopes the successful use of VR in the ICU will have a number of positive outcomes: less use of opioids and other painkillers; quicker patient improvement, leading to earlier transfers out of the ICU; and faster total recovery time for patients to regain normal function at home. 

"The patients that I've put it on so far, I've had trouble taking them off afterwards because people just want the experience of the ICU replaced with something else," said Golovyan. "Life support is hard." 

The VR experience is more than just a visual journey. The headset is equipped with headphones so the patient can hear birds, waterfalls, waves on the beach and calming music. The system also connects to a series of fans and heat lamps that can mimic the environment the patient is experiencing. Developers one day hope to use scans of patients' homes in VR headsets. 

"The things you can do with this are only limited by imagination because what you have is direct access to somebody's mind essentially," said Dr. Golovyan. 

The program works with Eskenazi Health's Critical Care Recovery Center (CCRC), a first-in-the-nation outpatient clinic focused on treating ICU survivors after they've left the hospital. They provide cognitive therapy, physical therapy, counseling and a variety of other resources. 

Dr. Babar Khan, medical director of the CCRC, explained the creation of the CCRC was inspired by an Eskenazi Health doctor's personal experience as a patient in his own ICU. Kahn explained that Dr. Praveen Mathur came out of his ICU stay with physical weakness and mental health symptoms.

"We realized that we need to develop a program that will be catered specifically towards survivors of critical care, especially mechanically ventilated patients," said Dr. Khan. 

Mathur called for more attention to the mental and emotional well-being of patients receiving long-term critical recovery care, and the CCRC and projects like virtual reality in the ICU became a reality. 

"One of the reasons we go to medical school, or at least I went to medical school, is to help people get better. And better does not just equate to keeping them alive," said Khan. "Better means that they could do what they want to do and be able to enjoy things they were before this sickness struck them."

To learn more about Dr. Mathur's story, click here. 

Current patients can experience brief treatments with the virtual reality headsets. Golovyan says the next step is to complete a feasibility study to collect data on how virtual reality impacts patients. As long as the studies continue to show positive results, he hopes to make virtual reality treatments commonplace in the hospital. 

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