Is Virtual Reality the New Healing Art?

A scene from inside a virtual reality world created using Tilt Brush.

COURTESY MONTEFIORE HEALTH SYSTEM
A scene from inside a virtual reality world created using Tilt Brush.
Medical researchers are finding new ways to treat pain using a potent mix of virtual reality and art.

Medical researchers are finding new ways to treat pain using a potent mix of virtual reality and art.

Courtesy Mon Health

VR is used at Mon Health to alleviate the pain of a variety of patients, including those receiving chemo.

“Pain needs cognitive attention to exist. Virtual reality can distract the brain from perceiving pain, and art has been used for years to calm patients,”

Jaschar Shakuri-Rad, M.D.

Imagine standing in front of a painting of a bus stop in the Bronx. You’re lost in it, completely immersed; then, suddenly you are inside the painting, on the bus. You leave the bus and wander the street, stepping into shops and restaurants, as if they were really there. Now, imagine strolling through the Montmartre district of Paris, looking up at the majestic Basilica of the Sacre-Coeur. At this moment, its broad white dome displays some of your favorite paintings by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

These are not just dreams or flights of fancy. These trips are available today. The only catch is, for now, you must be hospitalized to take them.

For nearly a decade, medicine has researched ways to treat pain through a combination of virtual reality and art, as a way to reduce dependence on opioids, the overuse of which has become a national crisis.

“Pain is, essentially, an unpleasant sensory experience,” says Jaschar Shakuri-Rad, M.D., urologist and Director of Robotic Surgery at Mon Health Medical Center in Morgantown, West Virginia. “Pain needs cognitive attention to exist. Virtual reality can distract the brain from perceiving pain, and art has been used for years to calm patients,” he says.

This spring, Shakuri-Rad began to look at common medical procedures where virtual reality apps, combined with art, could be used to not only calm patients, but to distract them from pain.

Five years earlier, Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York, had also started to explore using virtual reality as pain distraction, but expressly for its pediatric cancer patients

“I had attended conferences on Art and Medicine where I learned about using virtual reality as a tool for pain management in pediatric cases,” says Olivia Davis, art curator for Montefiore.

Davis has long sought to push the boundaries of the medical center’s art collection. “Much of hospital art is mundane,” she says. “I want to go beyond that. Otherwise, it just becomes another thing on the wall.”

That’s especially true for children, who may be more attuned to technology than traditional art, she continues. That’s why, when it came time to select art for the pediatric cancer unit, she wanted the art to not only be technological but also to reflect the community where the hospital is located. “We wanted the children to feel as though they could leave their hospital beds and walk around the neighborhood,” says Davis.

Lynn Cluess Manzione

Artist Tom Christopher

She reached out to expressionist artist Tom Christopher, who, as a New York resident, was familiar with the hospital’s Van Cortland Park area. “We wanted a painting that was not just about virtual reality but would also allow patients to see the hand of the artist, to show that another human was involved in the experience,” says Davis.

Christopher was happy to take up the challenge of creating a virtual reality painting, though he says he’s never done anything like that before. “It was a steep learning curve,” he says, taking about a year to complete.

Christopher worked with Tilt Brush, a Google technology that allows painters to become, for all intents and purposes, sculptors, creating three-dimensional art from what is typically a two-dimensional image.

“You work on an empty stage, and you start building things with the tilt object which looks like a small frying pan,” says Christopher. Each movement is interpreted by the computer. “It’s exhausting and everything takes a long time,” says Christopher, since each object must be depicted as realistically as possible. Still, he says, “It taught me to think more dimensionally. It’s like training your eye to see differently.”

“My dream is to have a VR pharmacy, where instead of pain killers, patients can be prescribed a virtual reality experience that can be just as effective in managing their pain.”

He has done similar paintings for Montefiore of the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Gardens which patients may soon choose to experience virtually. “With the Bronx Zoo, we may apply augmented reality to that,” says Davis. So, instead of simply visiting the zoo, the animals can virtually appear in the room, walking around the patient’s bed.

It was the patient’s inability to leave the bed which first created some problems for Shakuri-Rad at Mon Health Center in Morgantown. “We initially offered patients a deer hunting app since this is a state where deer hunting is big,” he says. But patients were having trouble navigating around the VR world as they lay prone in bed. “It made some patients nauseous,” says Shakuri-Rad. That led him to work with Benjamin Gleitzman and the Healing Museum to create a software program that would allow a virtual reality experience expressly for patients in bed.

At Mon Health Center, each VR experience is custom designed for the patient. He or she is asked where in the world they would most like to explore, and to name a favorite artist or paintings. Then the technology team goes to work, creating experiences like those Frida Kahlo paintings on the dome of the Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre.

Both Davis and Shakuri-Rad see virtual reality growing into greater use in hospitals.

“It can be used to distract kids during vaccinations and pregnant women in labor,” says Shakuri-Rad. Davis tells of a patient in ICU whose “dying wish” was to visit Egypt. The VR team made that possible for him.

Montefiore Health System art curator Olivia Davis assists with a patient with a VR experience.
Courtesy Montefiore Health System

Montefiore Health System art curator Olivia Davis assists a patient with a VR experience.

A scene from inside a virtual reality world created using Tilt Brush.
Courtesy Montefiore Health System

A scene from inside a virtual reality world created using Tilt Brush.

A patient receiving chemo treatments uses VR.
Courtesy Mon Health

A patient receiving chemo treatments uses VR.

“My dream is to have a VR pharmacy, where instead of pain killers, patients can be prescribed a virtual reality experience that can be just as effective in managing their pain,” says Davis.

Shakuri-Rad says he is already working on software that could deliver a “shot” of virtual reality when needed. “If we know there is a particularly painful part of a procedure coming up, we can give the patient a virtual reality shot, adding elements to their VR experience to distract them even more,” he says.

Patients have responded differently to VR art. Some aren’t interested in the technique, but of those who are, there is overwhelming enthusiasm. “We’re getting feedback now from pediatric patients on where else we can go with this,” says Davis. One of their suggestions was to add a sick superhero to the mix, someone, like them, who has a serious illness, and yet goes on to fight evil. “We’re working with illustrators now to turn that into reality, so kids can join the sick superhero inside a virtual art painting,” she says.

Certainly, medicine has changed and improved over the years—and it may be that virtual reality pushes the healing arts further than they’ve ever gone.

About the Author

Karen Edwards

Karen Edwards writes about books, food, wine, and pets from her home in Worthington, Ohio.

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