How families are giving a fantastic trip to loved ones in hospice

"How is heaven going to be better than that?"

Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
Erin Carson covered internet culture, online dating and the weird ways tech and science are changing your life.
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Erin Carson
5 min read

A hospice patient uses a virtual reality headset.

VITAS Healthcare

When hospice nurse Laurie McKay arrived at the emergency room, her patient -- a man in his early sixties with terminal cancer and now a fractured hip -- told her: "I knew you would be coming someday, but today my wife and I were supposed to be getting on a cruise ship."

McKay, who is chief nursing educator for Continuum Care Hospice based in the San Francisco Bay Area, didn't want the couple to miss out on that last cruise to Alaska together, so she turned to a tool that Continuum had started using with its patients -- virtual reality.

She made an appointment to visit the couple once they were back at home. Using Samsung Gear VR headsets and Google Earth VR, she'd mapped out all the ports where the cruise would have stopped, giving the couple the 360-degree views of ocean, waterfalls and ice caves they might have had in person. McKay also showed the man his childhood home in the present day, and the marina in California where the boat he'd been working on was docked.

"These were experiences he thought he would never be able to see completed," McKay said.

Watch this: Bucket lists get checked off in VR

While you might think of virtual reality as something used for games and marketing gimmicks, it's also found its way into a variety of other industries, including health care. The virtual reality market for health care alone is supposed to hit $6.91 billion by 2026, according to a March report from Reports and Data.

VR may get a bad rap as a once-hot tech trend that failed to live up to expectations, but companies haven't given up on it. Facebook last month released the $400 Oculus Quest, which CNET editor Scott Stein called the best thing he's tried this year. And virtual reality has made headway outside of the consumer world.

For example, using VR for hospice care -- as a way to bring a larger world to people who've found themselves limited to a room, or just a bed -- is beginning to catch on with care providers. It can be a way to check off bucket list items, like visiting London, swimming with dolphins or even skydiving. It can also complement therapy and counseling, and even perhaps help manage pain.

Plugging in

To bring VR to its patients in the past year or so, Continuum partnered with Rendever, a company that focuses on virtual reality for seniors.

Rendever provided Continuum with headsets and tablets that allow the person running the session to guide the experience. The company has a library of mostly third-party VR experiences to choose from, and a flagging system they've created that lets care givers know that an app might not be suitable for someone with a history of post-traumatic stress disorder, motion sickness or the like. What's more, two people can even simultaneously experience the same app wearing separate headsets.

That ability to share the experience is an important factor. Rendever CEO Kyle Rand spoke about the prevalence of social isolation among seniors, and how it's difficult to forge new shared experiences when your world has become so limited.

"It's one of the most amazing things things that you can offer a family who's going through this really hard time — to give them one last trip," Rand said.

Elsewhere in the country, hospice care providers are sussing out how to use virtual reality on their own.

Ben Roby, a chaplain at Hospice of North Central Ohio and the self-professed resident tech nerd, started looking into VR about a year ago when the director of development approached him about it.

After doing a lot of research and getting a grant from a local philanthropic organization, Roby settled on a Windows Mixed Reality headset and an Oculus Go.

Oculus Quest is fully mobile VR

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In the four and a half months he's had VR out in the field with him (at this point, he doesn't leave home without it), Roby said most patients who try it want to use it again. One patient, a 91-year-old woman, last week put in a request for cliff diving.

But beyond seeking thrills, finding calm or just doing cool stuff in VR, Roby said it's also helped him bridge some of the more serious conversations patients might eventually have with a chaplain.

In once instance, he showed a woman Angel Falls in Venezuela, which is the highest waterfall in the world.

"She took off the goggles and she said, 'How is heaven going to be better than that?'" he said. "As a chaplain, that's just kicking the door wide open for me to be able to dialog with her about end-of-life issues."

Beyond the bucket list

Fulfilling a bucket list item or discussing spiritual matters aren't the only ways hospice care providers are using VR.

In February, AT&T and Vitas Healthcare began studying how it could be used to deal with anxiety, as well as pain management, by reducing the use of opioids and helping patients stay more lucid.

Linking virtual reality to alleviating pain through distraction isn't new. Researchers at the University of Washington were using VR to help burn victims get through painful wound dressing more than a decade ago. A 2017 study from Cedars-Sinai found that patients using virtual reality as a distraction reported a 24 percent drop in the severity of their pain.

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Rod Cruz, AT&T's general manager of Healthcare Industry Solutions, said VR for pain management could be a preferable option "rather than making people comfortably numb with opiates and other things to numb pain."

Vitas and AT&T are starting in California with 15 clinicians who'll have Magic Leap and Oculus Go headsets. Vitas CIO Patrick Hale expects that will translate into hundreds of patients using the devices. From all those interactions, they're hoping to come away with perspective on the best types of experiences to use, the ideal length, and data on the effects of VR on respiratory rate, pulse and blood pressure. Within six to nine months, Hale wants to have a developed and modified a therapy program that can be used by Vitas across the country.

Cruz said having access to 5G mobile hotspots to run 4K VR could cut down on lag and improve the VR experience. The next generation of cellular technology, however, is only in the early stages of deployment, so the kind of coverage that would need to be in place for this could still be years away.

VR's impact

VR might not be a magic potion -- there will be folks who don't want to mess around with new tech, or who would be prone to nausea and motion sickness that sometimes accompany laggy virtual reality experiences. For others, poor vision may be a hurdle.

But for those who are able to use it, their care providers say its been impactful in ways they didn't expect.

McKay -- the nurse who plotted out the cruise ports for the couple who missed their trip -- said the man's wife reported that he told everyone who came to visit him about the VR experience. And when he died, she even talked about it at his service.

"[He thought] he was going to end up simply being in a bed in his home waiting to die," McKay said. "Instead he found he was able to live and participate and find enjoyment each day that he was given."

Originally published at 5 a.m. PT.