Santa Rosa hospital first in North Bay to offer virtual reality as pain management tool

Charlie Mandeville saw dolphins zoom by in front of her eyes and watched bubbles circle overhead while a nurse checked a wound on her forearm.

Mandeville tried popping the bubbles with her fingers, but her mom gently reminded her they were not real - it was all virtual reality.

The 4-year-old is one of a handful of patients in the past month at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital who have worn virtual reality headsets during treatment to ease anxiety that can arise in a medical environment.

Santa Rosa Memorial is the first hospital in the North Bay to use this technology, and is one of only three medical centers in California that have VR headsets for pediatric and gynecology patients to help them cope with pain, discomfort and uneasiness.

Other hospitals in California are trying them, but Ricci Ros, director of women and children's services at the local hospital, wanted them on a permanent basis because she viewed virtual reality as an alternative to traditional pain management medicine and techniques.

Ros was inspired by articles she read about the effectiveness of virtual reality in treating veterans with anxiety, so she thought it could be used instead of narcotic painkillers to treat pain in children and pregnant women.

“We really want to keep being a provider that thinks outside the box and this was one of many ways we believed could make our department stand out and be better,” Ros said.

When Mandeville's mom, Ashleigh, rushed her daughter to the hospital to treat a large dog bite, she was worried the clinical atmosphere would scare her.

“But overall it has been an awesome experience having these goggles whenever she needs them,” her mother said. Charlie, meanwhile, was lost in a world of sunfish and bubbles.

“Mom, I see a nemo fish,” she said while her vitals were checked.

Relaxing themes of nature

The Los Angeles company appliedVR is a leading national provider of VR headsets designed specifically for health care. About 250 hospitals around the world have tested the company's VR device, including Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. AppliedVR supplied 12 headsets to Santa Rosa Memorial in July paid for with a grant from a women's health group.

A team of appliedVR engineers create new visualizations and virtual experiences to accompany almost every possible medical situation. For example, there's a bear blast video game for patients getting a cast, images of Iceland for catheter placements and a farm sanctuary tour for those getting skin grafts, among dozens of others.

Goal to reduce opioid use

Patients or their guardians get to select from curated virtual reality content, and women delivering a baby even have the option of a voice telling them to keep breathing while they are in labor, said Dr. Jonathan Kurss, a gynecologist at Santa Rosa Memorial, part of St. Joseph Health Medical Group.

Kurss' biggest concern before the VR headsets became available was the vast amount of opioids being given to patients at most U.S. hospitals to relieve pain.

When he read research from Stanford University that said virtual reality was an effective tool for managing pain, Kurss said he was curious to see how it worked for women in labor.

“Massages are useful, an epidural as well, but that limits a woman's ability to get up and walk around and we want to stay away from narcotics as often as possible,” he said. “So when I heard virtual reality was possibly coming to our hospital, I was totally on board.”

Countless research papers, along with data from Southern California hospitals that have been using virtual reality for years as a pain management technique, show a decrease in self-reported pain by almost 25% and an anxiety reduction over 30% in patients who use the VR headsets in high-stress medical situations, according to a report by the Children's Hospital in Los Angeles, which has been offering VR to its patients since 2004.

A new wave of mothers in the North Bay wanting to deliver babies naturally convinced Kurss to make the headsets a pain relief option for expectant mothers at Memorial.

In less than a month, the gynecologist said he is already seeing positive results, especially in outpatient procedures.

Many women having a pelvic exam or getting an intrauterine device inserted have a tendency to tense up, making the procedure potentially more painful and could take longer, Kurss said. With the VR headsets that provide music or a calm, meditative voice, he said patients have been relaxing and reporting less pain.

“Labor pains are excruciating, but if we can shift their focus to something more pleasant like the visualization of a beach or things that are more pleasing to the eye, then it can help distract them from what's going on,” Kurss said.

Wider rollout planned

Santa Rosa Memorial patients can take advantage of the virtual reality experience at no cost, as an additional pain management service, Ros said. By next year, the hospital expects that more than 1,000 patients will have used the virtual headsets.

“We had a 6-year-old boy get an IV placed in his arm but because he was playing a video game using the goggles he didn't even notice,” Ros said.

“We will do whatever we can to be on the cusp of technology to provide more options to our patients to relieve pain.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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