TOMMI: A virtual reality gaming experience for medical stress management in children – Guest Blog

By: Valentino Megale, Ph.D.

Undergoing medical procedures and hospitalization is often a meaningful source of stressful experiences for paediatric patients such as anxiety, pain, social isolation, and uncertainty. The hospital setting ends up disrupting children’s life, removing from their daily routine the means they use to cope with risk, fear and unpleasant events. These aspects negatively impact on the quality of patients’ therapy experience in the short term and they also increase the probability to develop further complications in the long term. They also trigger patient’s avoiding behaviours toward therapy and the medical staff, resulting in potential delays in the hospital work routine.

During the last years, the fast evolution of digital technologies added new tools useful to improve their therapy experience. Among them, immersive technologies, such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), are able to provide a high level of distraction, engagement and storytelling dynamics resulting in a positive impact on patients’ life in the hospital.

Since 2017, at Softcare Studios we decided to help patients access this potential, developing virtual reality experiences designed around their real world needs and conditions. We started focusing on the most fragile and vulnerable niche of patients, children, aiming to help them better cope with the challenges of critical care settings like oncology, dentistry and orthopedics. We then developed TOMMI, a virtual reality gaming experience provided as a drug-free tool for stress management in children undergoing stressful medical tests and treatments.

In collaboration with medical doctors and psychologists, we designed TOMMI to help children cope with the hospital experience through the liberating impact of gaming and the distraction provided by the immersion in virtual reality. The scenario has been built considering the sensory and motor vulnerabilities of patients during therapy, aiming to promote their strengths, facilitate distraction from anxiety and pain without impacting the normal medical routines. It consists of 4 gaming activities set on a fantasy island and explored by the child through a magic book and a wand, providing a range of game mechanics useful to cover the variety of patient’s conditions during his journey.

TOMMI has been introduced in 8 paediatric hospitals until now, mainly in Italy. It is helping paediatric associations and foundations to extend their interventions aimed at improving the quality of patients’ lives in hospitals, supporting children both in day hospital procedures as in long term hospitalization. First pilot observational studies highlighted an improvement of patients’ positive attitude towards medical treatments and collaborativeness with the medical staff, facilitating their management both by their caregivers and the health personnel. Due to Covid-19 pandemic, our ongoing monocentric randomized controlled study experienced significant delays. However, preliminary data on paediatric patients undergoing blood tests in the oncohematology department suggest a reduction in pain perception by 38% thanks to the use of TOMMI during the test. Beyond the distraction provided by the immersive tool, interestingly TOMMI also emerged as a useful platform to boost communication quality between children, their caregivers and even health operators.

VR helps us to approach patients’ health in a holistic way, helping their mental, emotional and social needs emerge as measurable and prioritaire aspects in the healing journey. Mostly, what we learned with TOMMI is that delivering a VR solution also enables operators to start a dialogue with a patient’s personal needs and expectations that often fall unseen behind the rush of the medical treatments, helping to better map and improve clinical processes resulting in value for all the stakeholders.

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Dr. Megale:

BIO: Tech entrepreneur focused on digital health and mental well-being, TEDx speaker, and writer. Biologist, Ph.D. in Neuropharmacology, with International academic research experience in pharmacology, organic chemistry, and molecular biology. In 2017, I co-founded Softcare Studios, a digital health startup specialized in developing virtual reality solutions for stress management in patients undergoing medical treatments.