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Sept. 24, 2018 - Virtual Reality program lowers awareness of pain and reduces need for opioid drugs in burn patients

It hasn’t been very long and the number of patients in the sample is still small, but the results have been positive enough to bring a smile to the face of Dr. Steven Kahn and his team at the Arnold Luterman Regional Burn Center at University Hospital in Mobile.

As they expected, virtual reality seems able to help their patients through the worst of their burn care. It cuts awareness of pain, cuts narcotic use and increases patient satisfaction with care.

The concept isn’t new, Kahn says.  “Virtual reality has been used in health care for a while for physical therapy and pain control. It distracts people from their pain.”

It’s the same basic concept we all know from rubbing our temples to alleviate a headache — something that distracts us from discomfort.

Use of virtual reality in burn care has been around for a while, too, he says, but the initial VR units were cumbersome, stationary and expensive — running some $20,000 to $40,000.

“So we decided to build a smaller one,” he says.

Several months ago, the burn center received a grant from the Professional Fire Fighters of Alabama to craft a smaller, portable machine from commercially available elements.

Nurse practitioner Clint Leonard, CRNP, took on the challenge.

The headset Leonard developed — at a cost of about $4,000 — has been in use for several months now, and burn center professionals are delighted with the preliminary results.

“Patients just love it,” Kahn says.

“We have seen several patients with a dramatic decrease in pain and pain medication use,” says Kahn. And “almost every patient reports less awareness of pain.”

The virtual reality set is available to all patients except those who are critically ill or on life support. Most use it during wound care, a painful process that can take from about 5 minutes to as long as 30 minutes.

“It’s very significant to be distracted,” says Kahn.

“We are very focused on patient-centered care in this burn unit,” he says. “We want to give patients an optimal experience.

Beyond that, any change that can decrease the need for opioids is helpful for combating a national problem with opioid use, he says.

If the VR set is free, some patients also use it to break up the boredom of an extended hospital stay.

Options on the VR set range from a popular 3D paint program to swimming with dolphins, meditation, or even just movies or TV.  Active programs can help patients improve range of motion, also while distracting them from pain, says research nurse Anna Blache.

“Empirically, patients just love it,” Blache says. “That’s something that’s hard to study.”

Medical student Noelle Ahmed has also been involved in the project, presenting preliminary results at the summer research fair.

The goal now is to continue to improve the machine, to broaden the study and, if results continue to be as positive as the preliminary study, to add more VR sets and more program options.

Every element of the VR program is designed to help with the underlying purpose of the center, says Kahn — “to give patients an optimal experience and help them get through their burn care and back home with their families in the most efficient manner possible.”

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