New study explores how VR can improve quality of life of palliative care patients

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A new study at the University of Toronto Mississauga, which is looking at how VR can enhance the quality of life of those in palliative care, positions the immersive technology as a force for improvement rather than reinvention

Quick read

➨ Cosmin Munteanu, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Communication, Culture, Information and Technology, and PhD student Sho Conte are exploring how VR can be used to enhance people’s experiences, as well improve the communication skills of clinicians
➨ The impetus for the study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, came from Conte’s experiences as a volunteer at a Toronto hospice
➨ VR will be used to broaden the social experiences of patients and provide a more holistic approach to end-of-life care

The story

A new study at the University of Toronto Mississauga is looking at how VR can improve the quality of life of those in palliative care. 

Its researcher believes the immersive technology offers “many more opportunities” to improve palliative care in Canada, where it tends to have a medical focus.

Cosmin Munteanu, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Communication, Culture, Information and Technology, and PhD student Sho Conte are exploring how VR can be used to enhance people’s experiences, as well improve the communication skills of clinicians.

The impetus for the study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, came from Conte’s experiences as a volunteer at a Toronto hospice.

During some of his pre-pandemic visits, Conte took along some VR equipment to entertain clients. They used Google Earth to explore places they wanted to visit.

The response was “incredible”, Munteanu said, and the impact “super emotional and super effective”, particularly as those in palliative care often have limited mobility and few opportunities to enjoy new experiences, especially since the outbreak of Covid-19.

Conte believes that VR may be able to overcome social isolation and create new opportunities for socialising.

He said: “I see VR as a window into these virtual experiences that are immersive and very lived. It’s not as good as the real thing, but in light of their mobility challenges, it works really well.”

VR may also be a tool that helps provide a more holistic approach to end-of-life care.

The palliative care system in Canada is very good, according to Munteanu, but it tends to have a medical focus and “it’s the soft side that’s often neglected”.

Conte intends to explore how patients can broaden their experiences through VR, but the pandemic has put a temporary hold on his work. As a result, he has pivoted their research to focus on helping clinicians have difficult planning discussions with patients.

He explained: “Having conversations and planning before it’s too late is one of the biggest predictors of quality at end of life.”

Conte is now turning to VR to help clinicians prepare for these emotionally charged discussions that happen too infrequently.

Using a 3D chatbot that provides rich, simulated responses based on a serious illness conversation guide, medical students record themselves having a conversation about advanced care planning.

They then review the conversation through VR, where they can see it from the other person’s perspective, giving them a tool for critical self-reflection, learning and training.

Munteanu believes VR could be used to develop more empathetic and attentive listening skills that help improve the social and personal aspects of palliative care.

He said: “It’s not that people aren’t doing all they can. [But] there are so many more opportunities to make it even better.”

Munteanu’s Technologies for Aging Gracefully lab is also part of a three-year international research and development project that has received €1.5 million from the EU’s Assisted Augmented Living to explore the use of emerging technologies to improve the quality of life of palliative care recipients, their family caregivers and professional care providers.

Here, VR is very much being put forward as a means to enhance the quality of work that is already being done well.

It’s this view, that immersive technology can improve rather than reinvent, that developers would do well to heed and repeat themselves.

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Main image: Canva