5 Uses for Augmented Reality in Children's Hospitals

Over the last couple years, we've begun to see the revolutionary effects of what augmented reality (AR) can do for kids in the hospital. Augmented reality is a view of the real world with added digital information on top of it--an example of this would be Pokemon Go. When used by child life specialists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists, AR can be safe, effective, and immensely impactful for patients. Here are 5 ways AR brings the greatest value to patients, families, therapists, and hospitals:

1. Augmented Reality 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 cooperating with treatment, either because it is painful and scary or long and boring.

2. Augmented Reality Facilitates Escape

AR is not only a powerful redirection tool, it can also transform the environment. Layering digital experiences on physical spaces can open up a secret world, ripe for exploration. Giving kids (and parents) a brief reprieve from the reality of their situation is important, but it’s also necessary to stay grounded in the limitations of the child’s abilities, treatment, and the hospital environment. AR doesn’t block the view of the real world and allows for natural movement, helping to normalize the hospital experience without ignoring it.

  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.

  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

3. Augmented Reality Can Engage

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

4. Augmented Reality Encourages Movement

We’ve seen with Pokemon Go that AR can encourage kids to walk, but it can help with other gross motor skills too, like arm and head movement, sitting up, and shifting body position. This is important as physical activity is crucial to maintaining certain patients’ level of health. But it's not just about walking around. AR on mobile devices can provide the small targets needed to help a child work on controlling movements and refining fine motor skills. AR also provides the incentive: rewarding kids with magical and unique experiences.

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

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

5. Augmented Reality Manages Pain

It's been proven that kids experiencing AR and VR have reduced perception of pain while immersed in virtual worlds. With the help of augmented reality, a two-year-old can fly through a blood draw without tears and a young boy can laugh through a catheterization. Using AR to reduce the necessity of drug intervention for pain management is one of its most impactful applications.

 

Hospitals are starting to integrate AR into child life departments and their practices for occupational therapy and physical therapy. The therapists we’ve spoken to believe 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 continue to see an explosion of 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.