Hospice trials new virtual reality experience to help patients in pain

By Press Office

Residents of an Edinburgh hospice facility are the first palliative care patients in Scotland to experience the stunning effects of virtual reality in an exciting new university research project. The interactive initiative, which can virtually transport patients to locations on the other side of the world, will look at the impact of virtual reality (VR) on patients’ health and wellbeing.

An initial group of six patients at St Columba’s Hospice benefitted from the transformative effects of VR when they were offered the chance to revisit some of their favourite places or explore a part of the world they had never seen. Using the latest high-tech VR headsets, one individual was transported to Jerusalem, a place he had always dreamed of visiting. In another session, a lady who was 101 years old, was thrilled to revisit her childhood home in Darjeeling and indulge in a trip up the Amazon river for the first time. The experience triggered happy memories with the opportunity to reminisce about old times, as well as encounter new places.

The patients also took the chance to immerse themselves in an under sea adventure. Through the use of VR, the patients could explore the a sunken wreck with beautiful fish circling overhead whilst an enormous whale passed by. The colours were so vivid and the experience so joyful, that one resident joked that it was almost worth being admitted to the hospice to have the experience. 

The initial visual reality taster was run by Billy Agnew, Founder of Viarama, the world’s first virtual reality social enterprise. Viarama, which is based in East Lothian, uses the innovative power of VR as a force for good within communities across Scotland. Billy set up Viarama so he could focus on creating unique VR experiences that would improve the lives of senior citizens, school children and young people. Billy is now working in collaboration with Queen Margaret University and St Columba’s Hospice on a research project involving 20 hospice patients. The project will look at the potential benefit of VR with a focus on patients’ mood, pain and stress levels, as well as overall wellbeing.

Dr Erna Haraldsdottir is Senior Lecturer in Nursing at Queen Margaret University and Director of Education and Research at St Columba Hospice. Having observed patients at the taster session she is now keen to explore the use of VR in palliative care. She said: “The patients loved it. They were thrilled by the experience. One family member said it was the first time her mother had smiled in months!  It was wonderful to see the immediate impact on individuals.”

She continued: “The VR experience essentially transports individuals to another world, removing them from the reality of their situation and absorbing them in a positive experience. It’s liberating and exciting for them to revisit a place that sparks happy memories or to indulge in an activity that once exhilarated them. It is exciting now to progress to a research project to gather the evidence of potential benefit.    

“There is little evidence of VR being used in palliative care  with no published  research which identifies its potential in this important area of healthcare. We now need to establish the facts with more in-depth research to understand the immediate effects and the possible longer term impact on wellbeing and physical health. We are particularly keen to learn if VR sessions have the potential to alleviate symptoms in patients receiving palliative care, such as pain and anxiety levels.”

For five out of the six patients who experienced the taster session, choosing to visit their ‘happy’ place or doing a favourite activity was a very positive experience. However, one patient was tearful at the end of the session, following the realisation that she would never be able to revisit her favourite place in person ever again. Despite this, the following day, she reported that the experience had helped her come to terms with her current situation as she approached end of life.

Billy Agnew said: “Viarama is delighted to be, once again, working with St Columba's Hospice and QMU. We look forward to giving many more hospice patients in Scotland the opportunity to enjoy the best VR experiences available, whilst exploring and measuring the many ways in which we believe VR helps people receiving palliative care".

Dr Haraldsdottir concluded: “Queen Margaret University and St Columba Hospice are passionate about developing person centred palliative care and are delighted to pioneer this ground-breaking research project with such an innovative social enterprise.

“Thanks to a grant from the Margaret Murphy Charitable Trust and generosity from Viarama, St Columba’s Hospice and QMU are excited to introduce a group of 20 patients to the exhilarating world of virtual reality at such a significant stage in their lives. This important research will help us better understand the benefits of using VR and identify future interventions which may improve the quality of life of patients receiving palliative care.”

Notes to Editor

About Viarama

Viarama is Scotland’s first virtual reality company, and the world’s first virtual reality Social Enterprise. It uses the innovative power of VR as a force for good within communities across Scotland, working to specifically improve the quality of life of schoolchildren, senior citizens, and 18-24 year olds. Viarama works in many sectors including education and healthcare, and is committed to training and employing 18-24-year-olds to deliver VR to schools, nursing homes, hospices, and respite centres. It also works on a variety of exciting and innovative VR projects in partnership with government and industry, and all of its work has a strong focus on improving quality of life. Viarama allows people of all ages and all levels of physical ability to enjoy the best virtual reality experiences available in the world today.  

Viarama provided VR experiences to the residents of St Columba's Hospice free of charge for the duration of the initial pilot; approximately one year.

Virtual Reality Headsets

Viarama uses the HTC Vive VR Headset which was recently voted as device of the year by several noted magazines and tech websites. To power the headsets, it uses the most powerful pc’s available; custom built from the ground up to provide an experience second to none anywhere in the world.

St Columba’s Hospice

Find more information about St Columba's Hospice on their website. 

About Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh

QMU is renowned for relevant research and knowledge exchange work which focuses on making a positive impact on society. The University has widely recognised expertise in health & rehabilitation, sustainable business, and creativity & culture.

Staff in QMU’s Division of Nursing are passionate about excellent person-centred and evidence-informed practice and are engaged in a range of impactful research projects.

For further media information please contact Lynne Russell, Communications Manager, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, E: lrussell@qmu.ac.uk, T: 0131 474 0000, M: 07711 011239 or Chelsie Harris, PR Manager at St Columba Hospice, E: media@stcolumbashospice.org.uk. T: 0131 551 1381

Media Enquiries

For media enquiries or to access one of our experts.

Show Contacts