The Christie Hospital becomes first in UK to use VR to distract children during radiotherapy 

As part of a two-year project, the trust is utilising a virtual reality headset to reduce treatment-related anxiety

Published: 18 June 2024 Radiotherapy

The Christie Hospital in Manchester has become the first in the UK to roll out VR headsets for children during cancer treatment. 

As part of a two-year project, the Christie NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the specialist cancer centre, is using a virtual reality headset as distraction therapy, to reduce cancer treatment-related anxiety in children aged between seven and 16.

Since being launched in March the headset, classed as a grade 1 medical device, has been used more than 20 times.

Dr Shermaine Pan, consultant clinical oncologist at the Christie, said: “Improving cancer treatment is also about improving children’s experience whilst having treatment. The VR distraction therapy is an example of how we can make children’s journey through cancer treatment a more positive one.”

The headset immerses the child in a 3D multi-sensory environment, acting as a distraction from the discomfort of the treatment.  

Children are using the headset when undergoing clinical procedures including cannulation, injections, blood tests and dressing changes, as well as radiotherapy or proton beam therapy treatment for cancers other than brain tumours (as these patients have to wear a mask over their faces). 

Isla Gault, a 10-year-old from Country Antrim, has been undergoing treatment for medulloblastoma.

She was referred to The Christie for 30 sessions of proton beam therapy, a type of radiotherapy, to try and prevent the cancer from coming back. She has now finished this part of her treatment and is back at home where she will also have chemotherapy. 

“I really liked the VR as one of the video choices was ‘under the sea,'" she said.

"I liked seeing all the animals and it made me forget what was happening to me, I didn’t even feel the needle going in when they took my blood.” 

Isla’s mum Hilary said: “The VR headset is just one of the ways the team made Isla feel as comfortable as possible while she was having treatment at The Christie. Her wellbeing was at the centre of everything.

“Before I came over, I was so worried about what it was going to be like, but they put us both at ease straight away. I can’t thank them enough.” 

The team is collecting data to better understand the difference the distraction therapy is making to the patient’s journey. Before having treatment, the child chooses from a sliding scale of face emojis, each associated with a word describing how they feel. The first face on the scale represents ‘happy’ with the last representing ‘scared.’ They then ask again after the procedure and use of the headset and compare the difference. 

So far patients have reported a 45 per cent reduction in anxiety since using the headset.  

(Picture: Isla Gault using the VR headset, via The Christie NHS Foundation Trust)