Can Virtual Reality Ease the Emotional Toll of COVID-19 on Healthcare Workers?
As hospitals and health systems explore new ways to support their employees on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual reality has emerged as a powerful tool to help healthcare workers reduce chronic stress and build coping skills. For frontline health workers who have managed a consistent flow of COVID-19 patients for well over a year, the psychological effects of the pandemic have taken a severe toll.
According to a survey conducted by Mental Health America, 93% of healthcare workers reported experiencing stress, 76% reported exhaustion and burnout, and 75% reported being overwhelmed. Despite these experiences, 45% of nurses said they were unlikely to have emotional support.
In recognition of this challenge, Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Orange County, California, introduced CenteredVR to its nurses working in the hospital’s COVID unit. CenteredVR, developed in collaboration with Johns Hopkins Medicine, is a dynamic, personalized virtual reality (VR) experience that can reduce chronic stress by building resilience and coping skills. The program gradually guides individuals through a soothing, immersive VR experience that helps alleviate stress through educational elements and mindfulness practices. It teaches users to optimize their stress responses, becoming less reactive and more resilient to stressors.
Early results on CenteredVR’s impact on users’ stress levels have been positive and among those who have used the program to date, stress levels decreased, on average, by a reported 34%.
“We have seen the power of virtual reality-enabled programming to support the mental health and wellbeing of our patients so it was a natural fit for us to offer a tool like CenteredVR to our nurses,” said Robert G. Louis, M.D., the Hoag Empower360 Endowed Chair for Skull Base and Minimally Invasive Neurosurgery at the at Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute. “Mindfulness practices are shown to reduce chronic stress and CenteredVR combines those principles with the neurological and psychological power of virtual reality, offering our nurses new resources to reduce stress and improve their overall health.”
Rick Martin, Ed.D, MSN, RN, senior vice president, clinical operations and chief nursing officer of Hoag, offered details on the initial uptake of the programming: “Nearly two thirds (64%) of our nursing staff in the COVID-19 unit signed up to use the CenteredVR programming and we’ve continued to receive positive feedback on the program’s impact in their day-to-day lives.”
Nurses at Hoag download the BehaVR Mobile App, which syncs with a virtual reality headset, to begin their immersive experience. Over the course of six, 20-minute sessions focused on mindfulness practices, which can be done in the safety and comfort of their own homes, nurses learn new skills and information to help them adapt and cope with stress in their daily lives more effectively.
“Stress and burnout among healthcare workers is not a new phenomenon but the unrelenting pace and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken these common challenges to new, unimaginable heights, bringing sustained, intense levels of stress,” said Aaron Gani, CEO of BehaVR. “We are pleased to bring CenteredVR to healthcare settings. VR has shown that it can mitigate the effects of chronic stress, reduce anxiety, and enhance the overall mental health and wellbeing of those who use it. We are hopeful that CenteredVR can bring these benefits to our nation’s tireless and dedicated healthcare workers. In addition, we have a strong belief that any employee struggling to cope with stress at work would benefit from using CenteredVR.”