A virtual calming force

A VR headset in use by OnePatient.

In the inner city of Chicago, some of America’s poorest communities struggle with the basics. Food and shelter are necessities that seem like luxuries, leaving healthcare services to feel exclusively like the latter. Even with charity and Medicaid, many still cannot get the basic care they need, especially since the services available in their area are severely overburdened by the demand, with providers struggling to find doctors and nurses to speed things up.

In some cases, the hospitals lack basic accommodations, such as sterile beds and clean hallways. Getting treatment for what ails you is a struggle, regardless of how “minor” an issue may be. And, if your need is related to mental health, access to care is even harder to come by – which is extra troublesome, since the underserved suffer from anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts at an alarming rate.

“Many of them find their futures to be bleak,” says Karla Ivankovich, Ph.D., LCPC, President, OnePatient Global Health Initiative, who is a counselor specializing in providing mental health services to people who live in impoverished, crime-ridden communities.

“These are the places where nobody wants to drive a car, let alone bring their grandma to have a procedure done. Some of these hospitals are so desperate and the funding is so poor that getting a patient appropriate care just doesn’t happen,” she adds.

To combat this gap in care, Dr. Ivankovich formed the OnePatient Global Health Initiative with her husband, an orthopedic surgeon. The goal of the not-for-profit is to bring care to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it. Noting that it’s difficult to get basic care into impoverished inner-city communities let alone “specialized” health services, Dr. Ivankovich says OnePatient focuses on “bio-psycho-social medicine,” uniting mental and physical healthcare into a single end in hopes of blurring the artificial lines that separate them.

Samsung Gear VR headsets with attached smartphone.

Things don’t always go smoothly. Discussing the challenge of helping people with limited resources overcome anxiety and depression, she feels her client’s struggle with knowing how to relax, let alone overcoming any underlying issues. But, she is seeing success with a treatment approach OnePatient adopted earlier this year – virtual reality.

Patients who struggle with anxiety, depression, brain trauma, and chronic pain are given the option to use VR headsets as part of a therapy session. After sitting comfortably and having their vital signs checked, the virtual reality goggles are placed over the head. From there, a patient can go anywhere the headset might take them. Presently, Dr. Ivankovich has her patients using guided meditation and relaxation apps, provided to OnePatient by software developer Cubicle Ninjas.

The software features a variety of calming and relaxing imagery ranging from a psychedelic exploration of nature-inspired locales to a tour of beautiful Japan. Like any VR experience, the goggles immerse the user in another world, complete with full 360-degree motion control and rich sound effects.

Dr. Ivankovich says she was inspired to utilize VR after experiencing it for herself at a trade show – where her skepticism of the technology was washed away after trying it. It’s been a few months since she brought the headsets to her interns and clients for some early trial runs; the results came as a welcome surprise.

“We’re seeing a reduction in blood pressures. We’re seeing a reduction in self-reported pains, even in 10 minutes,” she says. “From what I’m seeing, some of my most anxious patients – who have not been helped through traditional therapies – are truly seeing groundbreaking results because they finally found something that will allow them to relax.”

Many of her clients are millennials between the ages of 18 and 35. Overburdened by debt and struggling in an economy that sees slow growth, Dr. Ivankovich says millenials have striking rates of anxiety and depression, not to mention suicide. Unfortunately, they’re also sometimes resistant to traditional therapy.

“The [VR therapy] is a beautiful blend of modern technology and medicine,” says Dr. Ivankovich, adding that reaching millennials often requires a creative use of technology, since they’ve been hardwired by a lifetime of smartphones and Internet.

“Sitting down with a millennial and using a paper and pen, doing all these psychological tests – we’re going to struggle there, because that’s not their gig. They love technology,” she adds. “So, being able to utilize this, I’m seeing such incredible results already that I’m very excited to see how the study turns out. More than anything, I’m just happy to find something that the patients are all really enjoying.”

An official study has yet to be approved, but OnePatient has been gathering their results from the preliminary tests, most of which have been positive. As for negative effects typically associated with VR, such as dizziness, Dr. Ivankovich says her patients have reported no issues – including her clients who typically experience vertigo problems on a regular basis, due to a traumatic brain injury. The next step is to confirm the progress by conducting VR research on a scientific sample size, complete with placebo controls.

“We’re getting ready to submit to the institutional review board and see if we can get the permissions to begin the study,” Dr. Ivankovich says. “Utilizing this – and again, we’re in our infancy with the testing and things – we are seeing results that could have an abundance of benefits for healthcare in general, especially in terms of reducing costs, because we can teach patients to be proactive about their own health and their own wellness.”

As for using VR outside the office, Dr. Ivankovich mentions Google Cardboard – affordable, makeshift VR goggles that can be placed over virtually any smartphone. But, even if patients don’t have access to VR, Dr. Ivankovich’s hypothesis is that the technology will still aid her clients in replicating the feeling of calm at home, using the coping skills they’ve learned during therapy sessions. The VR is a means to an end, but it’s not a stand-alone therapy tool.

“My goal is to teach every one of my patients and clients to be functionally independent. If they become anxious in a situation outside of my office, they have to be able to calm themselves. They have to know how to de-escalate so that it doesn’t turn into a situation that results in an ER visit, because they’re fearful they’ve had a heart attack – for anxiety, that’s the progression. So, we have to give them the tools to do this on their own.

“It’s just one more thing we can put in a toolbox for someone who otherwise would end up in a crisis,” she says.