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Virtual reality becomes part of occupational therapy in acute patient care

IU Health Methodist Hospital

Virtual reality becomes part of occupational therapy in acute patient care

One Occupational Therapy student followed a special interest and made his Capstone project a ‘reality.’

By TJ Banes, Senior Journalist, IU Health,

As he waited for a lung transplant, Robert Stahlhut worked with therapists to strengthen his body for the life saving procedure.

Two of those caregivers were Occupational Therapist, Alex Robinson, and Occupational Therapy student Alex Harris. From the comfort of his room, Stahlhut, a resident of Fort Thomas, Ky., received both occupational therapy, and a little reprieve from his long hospital stay.

patient in vr headset

Harris is completing his final semester of the occupational therapy doctoral program at IUPUI. As his capstone project, he introduced patients like Stahlhut to the concept of virtual reality. The project aligns with IU Health’s teaching component of the hospital. Robinson, along with Heather Weber were Harris’ mentors on the project.

Capstone projects allow students the opportunity to focus on research and solutions that can be incorporated into hospital settings. Harris learned about virtual reality and how it is used in therapy in a technology class at IUPUI.

In his time with IU Health, Harris worked with more than a dozen patients at Methodist and University Hospitals. The majority of his patients were hospitalized for transplants and ranged in age from 70 to 15.

“We worked closely with the Infection Prevention and IT Departments to introduce virtual reality and we are getting positive feedback from the patients who have used it and how it is impacting their care,” said Shelly Hamilton, IU Health Occupational Therapy Manager. The team also collaborated with the Innovations Lab and the Methodist Hospital Library, said Hamilton.

Sitting in a comfortable chair Stahlhut wore a headset and maybe for a brief moment forgot he was hospitalized. As Harris helped him focus on computer-generated images, Robinson monitored his vitals.

ipad screen

Virtual reality is a simulated 3D environment that allows patients to explore and interact with a virtual surrounding. A beach scene, a game, or a hike through the mountains can transport patients to another place. And while they are exploring those far-off places, they are also receiving necessary therapy.

“There are specific goals for each patient. We may be trying to help lower the anxiety levels by taking them to a beach scene, or we may be working on balance with a more active game,” said Harris, who has trained other hospital occupational therapists in the use of virtual reality. For patients working on upper body strengthening, the virtual reality scene may require a patient to reach out with the controllers to shoot off fireworks. “They are doing the exercises without thinking about it,” said Harris.

Ideal candidates for the use of virtual reality are patients who have extended hospital stays.

“When patients are here for a long time, virtual reality is an interventional tool. It makes their time a little more enjoyable and it also can be used as a distraction from the hospital setting,” said Harris. To gage the success of the project, Harris has collected both quantitative (measuring pain, anxiety and nausea, for example) and qualitative data (what patients report and what therapists observe). The results have been positive enough to keep the program going with the help of therapists like Robinson who has worked alongside Harris.

Robinson earned both undergraduate and master’s degrees from UINDY. He said he became interested in occupational therapy when he was a junior in high school.

“I experienced radial nerve palsy in my hand and was introduced to occupational therapy,” said Robinson, who works with cardio pulmonary patients at Methodist Hospital. “I like helping people get back to what they need and love to do. It sounds simple but it’s something a lot of people take for granted.”

Harris earned his undergraduate degree in psychology from IU Bloomington.

“I didn’t know what I’d do with psychology and when I got the chance to shadow an OT near my home in Muncie, I thought it was cool to see the holistic approach that involves the social, mental and overall well-being of patients.”

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