By Patrick Hwu, M.D. - March 07, 2022
Four years ago, Dr. Sarah Hoffe asked herself how she could take some of the fear out of the MRI process. Hoffe, section head of Gastrointestinal Radiation Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, turned to the world of virtual reality for answers. She recently sat down with me to discuss the role of this innovative technology.
Hwu: How will virtual reality improve the patient experience at Moffitt Cancer Center?
Hoffe: You can imagine when you take a patient that is newly diagnosed and you tell them they have to go through a narrow tunnel, they have to lay there and they have to intermittently hold their breath. Because I do this professionally, I felt like the experience could be improved. I started toying with the idea, what can we really do to make it better? How can we use an immersive media like virtual reality so that the patient can feel like they’re going through the experience virtually before they go through the experience in real life?
Hwu: How did we collaborate with Ringling College of Art and Design on this project?
Hoffe: Ringling College of Art and Design is actually the No. 3 art school in the world. I’ve been a fan of Ringling College for many years. I’ve also been a fan of having more creativity in health care. We have the ability now to collaborate with Ringling College not only in virtual reality, but with visual arts. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg and I think there’s so many amazing things we can do together.
Hwu: Are we currently using this technology with patients at Moffitt?
Hoffe: We’re going to be testing it. What does the prototype look like? How should the prototype be with patients? It’s important to know the importance of patient centered design. So we had two of our Moffitt patients, one who’s gone through the experience and one who’s been cured of pancreatic cancer and hadn’t gone through the experience because he was cured 15 years ago and they had a lot of input. How should the headset feel? What type of game should we play to train patients to use their breathing? The next step is to use grant funding to conduct a feasibility trial. We’re in the middle of that right now. Very soon it will be in the clinic being tested so that we can give you data on it. Someday in the future you can invite me back and I’ll tell you how much our patients liked it.
Hwu: What is the virtual reality experience like for patients?
Hoffe: The experience starts when they put on the headset. We’ll relax them with two games that are very strategic. The games teach them to hold their breath. In the MRI machine, you have to hold your breath for 25 seconds at a time. That may sound easy until you try to do it. The games will desensitize patients and train their breathing. Then the patient will recline on the exam table, still with the headset on, and now they’re in the virtual MRI machine. They’re actually laying there, they’re going through the virtual tunnel and they’re actually seeing what it’s really going to be like when they go in the room.
Hwu: What are the future plans for using virtual reality in cancer treatment?
Hoffe: I think the future is very bright. At Moffitt we currently have pockets of innovators. The future is to scale it. We need to think about how we can scale it across the organization so that each clinic, each department benefits. We have already started those conversations. We want to make sure that in the future we have the infrastructure for the entire organization and not only for the clinics, but for diverse patient populations. We want to make sure that no matter who walks through our door, we have the ability to put the headset on and transport them to whatever is needed and give them access.