MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Dr. Jaschar Shakuri-Rad, a urologist at the Mon Health Medical Center in Morgantown, has carried out enough procedures to know that most of his patients would rather be just about anywhere else.
And Shakuri-Rad now has a way to help them do just that.
Rather than staring at the ceiling, doing their best to think about their favorite vacation spot or the greatest triumphs of their favorite sports team, patients who request them can slip on virtual reality goggles and be transported to places far beyond the sterility and stress of a hospital.
They can look at art, wander down Morgantown streets, slip inside West Virginia University’s Milan Puskar Stadium, or appreciate gently falling raindrops. Developed by Morgantown native Benjamin Gleitzman, who is also the chief technology officer of the online Healing Museum, the Mon Health Center puts its virtual reality offerings under an umbrella it calls MONA.
Though it might seem a little too much like science fiction for anyone who came of age before the start of the millennium, it’s increasingly being embraced by doctors who want to ease their patients’ anxiety, and by the patients themselves, who find that being distracted when they are arguably at their most vulnerable is not a bad thing.
“Virtual reality can take your mind off things,” Shakuri-Rad explained, pointing out that he prefers virtual reality journeys with a hip-hop beat, but that the soundtrack can be customized to fit each patient’s preferences, and the volume can be adjusted accordingly. “It doesn’t have to change the standard of care. It gets multiple senses involved. It takes you out of that hospital setting.”
It’s not unheard of for some patients to feel dizzy or nauseous after going through the virtual reality experience, but patients can choose which setting and situation best serves their mood and constitution; to be sure, not everyone would find, say, rock climbing or careening on a roller coaster to be the best way to soothe frazzled nerves.
“It’s a customized experience we can tweak in many different ways,” Shakuri-Rad explained.
In 2018, The Washington Post reported on the use of virtual reality during childbirth, chemotherapy, kidney dialysis or wound treatment. Virtual reality as a therapeutic tool was first considered about two decades ago, but the bulky equipment of the late 1990s made it impractical. Lower costs and greater comfort have led such marquee institutions as Boston’s Children’s Hospital and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles to make virtual reality a part of their treatment regimen.
Doctors also say that virtual reality can help ease the opioid epidemic by deflecting attention away from pain. That means doctors might be able to avoid prescribing painkillers altogether, or at least prescribe them in lower dosages.
Theresa McSherry, a nurse practitioner in Portland, Ore., told The Washington Post, “VR is not going to resolve the opioid crisis, but it’s useful to have in our toolbox to help people be less dependent on medication in the early stages. This is a tool with potential to teach pain desensitization and coping that may allow a burn survivor to return to a better functional status.”
While virtual reality is not pushed on patients, none have refused it, Shakuri-Rad said. The Mon Health Medical Center plans on expanding the use of virtual reality into its infusion center and other departments.
“We’re treating the mind, body and spirit,” Shakuri-Rad said.