5 Uses for Augmented Reality in Children's Hospitals

While the Pokemon Go phenomenon may be cooling down, we’ve seen some intriguing follow-on effects of what AR can do for kids in hospital. Pokemon Go got kids, sick and healthy alike, up and walking, tracking down elusive digital experiences. The impact was immediate and savvy therapists, like those at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan immediately saw the potential and began using it as part of their toolkit. But because it was not designed for hospital use, there have been some negative side effects: complaints of visitors and patients wandering into areas they shouldn't be, risking injury or interference with care of other patients. 

The difference seems to be using AR within the scope of therapeutic intervention. AR, when administered by child life specialists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists, can be used in a safe and effective way. Here are the five ways I predict AR will bring the greatest value to patients, their therapists, their families, as well as hospitals.

1.     AR can DISTRACT
Augmented experiences are so new and immersive that kids pay attention: they focus on the AR and not on the unpleasantness of the situation. This is highly effective for blood draws, dressing changes, sleep study prep, and many other situations where kids have difficulty complying with the treatment, either because it is painful, scary, or long and boring.

A 2-year old is engrossed by SpellBound and oblivious to sleep study prep.

A 2-year old is engrossed by SpellBound and oblivious to sleep study prep.

2.     AR facilitates ESCAPE
AR is not only a powerful redirection tool is can also transform environment. Layering digital experiences on physical spaces can give a sense of opening up a secret world, ripe for exploration. Giving kids (and parents) a brief reprieve from the reality of their situation is important, but it is also important to do stay grounded in the limitations of the child’s abilities, treatment, and the hospital environment. AR does not block the view of the real world and allows for natural movement, making it safer to interact with the technology in an environment that can be full of obstacles and tethers. It is all about normalizing the hospital experience, not ignoring it.

3.     AR can ENGAGE
The hospital is an unfamiliar environment, full of strangers, uncertainty and without any semblance of normal routine or control, making it difficult for a child to understand how to exist in this environment. The multisensory nature of AR (sound, sight, touch) along with the multidimensional aspects (3D, animation, real-world context) allows kids new and unique ways in interacting with the world around them. Whether it is a virtual MRI machine, or an undersea adventure on the way to the OR, AR sparks curiosity and mental engagement.

4.     AR encourages MOVEMENT
We’ve seen with Pokemon Go that AR can encourage kids to walk, but it can help with other gross motor skills, like arm and head movement, sitting up, shifting body position. We recently brought in our Hololens to a teen who had been refusing physical therapy for the last few days. He sat up, put the headset on, and began interacting with the augmented world, raising his arms, making hand gestures and turning his body. This was the most physical activity he received that week, physical activity that is crucial to maintaining his level of health.

But it's not just about walking around. Occupational therapy helps patients with their fine motor movement (hands, fingers), and augmented reality on mobile devices can provide the small targets needed to help a child work on controlling their movements and refining fine motor skills. AR also provides the incentive: rewarding kids with magical and unique experiences.

A 7-year-old patient uses SpellBound with his Occupational and Physical therapists. Photo: Lon Horwedel / Special to The Detroit News

A 7-year-old patient uses SpellBound with his Occupational and Physical therapists. Photo: Lon Horwedel / Special to The Detroit News

5.     AR manages pain
I’ve seen a two year old, with the help of augmented reality, fly through a blood draw without tears. And I’ve seen (and heard from multiple hospital therapists) that kids experiencing AR and VR have reduced or no pain while immersed in virtual worlds. Using AR to reduce the necessity of drug intervention for pain management will be one of the most impactful applications in the near future.

A child life specialist distracts a patient in the ER using SpellBound.

A child life specialist distracts a patient in the ER using SpellBound.

Some hospitals are starting to integrate AR into their therapeutic practices for OT, PT, and child life departments. The therapists we’ve spoken to are believers in the power of AR to help kids cope, heal, and be kids, even in the face of disease or treatment. Over the next few years we’ll see an explosion of use cases for AR in healthcare, particularly around transforming patient experience and improving therapeutic intervention.  Why? Because augmented reality has the power to change perception. Treatment may not always be pleasant, but changing the perception of treatment will change the stories patients tell about their experience and will change how they feel about hospitals and their health. 

Christina YorkComment