Staff in an oncology infusion unit located in an urban healthcare system watched as patient and caregiver stress increased during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and the November 2020 U.S. presidential elections. During a team meeting, Holly, one of the nurses, brought up a study she read about that used virtual reality (VR) as a distraction for patients undergoing chemotherapy. The staff was interested in implementing a similar program at their institution but wasn’t sure how to start.

What Would You Do?

Using three-dimensional images and other computer-generated effects, VR engages participants in visual, auditory, and action sensations through a specialized viewer. From 2000–2007, Schneider et al. conducted a series of studies examining use of VR as distraction in women with breast cancer; adults with breast, colon, or lung cancer; and pediatric patients undergoing cancer treatment. Pediatric patients and those with breast cancer showed significant improvement in perceived anxiety from pre- to postintervention. Study participants also indicated that their treatment time seemed shorter when using VR.

Based on the study Holly read about Christiana Care Health System's implementation of a VR experience in their outpatient cancer center, the infusion nurses partnered with the hospital’s information services and technology department to determine which VR headsets to purchase. Using a continuous improvement grant they received from a pharmaceutical company, the infusion unit purchased three VR headsets and four videos simulating nature scenes.

Cancer center volunteers sanitized and fit the headsets for patients who wanted to use VR. Nurses suggested the intervention to patients who appeared very nervous, were alone, or had no other distraction objects like books, crafts, or the internet. The unit didn’t conduct formal measurement, but all of the patients who used the VR agreed that they would use it again. Like in Schneider et al.’s findings, patients said that VR decreased their perception of time spent in the chemotherapy suite.

As VR becomes more widespread, pricing for devices is expected to decrease. Standard VR headsets can range from less than $10–$300, depending on the features. Handheld devices are typically the least expensive.