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Not just for gamers: U of T anesthesiologists taking virtual reality to patients facing surgery

The virtual reality experience takes patients at SickKids through the various stages of surgical preparation, procedure and recovery

U of T Faculty of Medicine's Fahad Alam and Clyde Matava, both assistant professors of anesthesia, are hoping virtual reality can play an important role in reducing preoperative anxiety.

It’s common for many patients who are preparing for a surgical procedure to feel anxious. Whether it’s a fear of pain, being in a strange environment or worrying about the recovery, there are a number of concerns that doctors try to address with the patients before the surgery. 

So Alam and Matava have created the Collaborative Human Immersive and Interactive Lab (CHISIL), which has virtual reality spaces at Sunnybrook Hospital and the Hospital for Sick Children.

The video below gives you a sense of what that virtual reality feels like.

A lot of the work CHISIL does is centred around patient education, an integral part of any surgical procedure. It helps the patient understand the procedure and what they can expect on the day of the surgery. 

“My focus has always been around technology-enhanced learning,” says Alam. “And at times, I found patient education to be an underserviced realm. So it made sense to start to look at how immersive virtual content could be geared towards preoperative patients. 

Patients don special virtual reality goggles that let them “experience” the journey of being prepped for surgery and being transferred to the operating room. Alam and Matava monitor the patients’ anxiety levels, blood pressure, heart rate and self-assessment. They then compare this to a control group who watched traditional instructional videos before their operation. 


Assistant Professor Fahad Alam provides preoperative instruction using virtual reality technology

While the study is still ongoing, Alam and Matava are already receiving positive feedback from patients who have used the technology. 

“I have never heard the phrase, ‘This is so cool!’ so often,” says Alam. “Everyone is amazed by the content and in awe of the environment we are able to immerse them in.”

CHISIL is the first lab of its kind in Canada and is an initiative under eLearning and Technological Innovations by the Faculty of Medicine's department of anesthesia. While the lab initially operated solely from Sunnybrook and SickKids, they now have mobile virtual reality units. They’re also developing ways of letting patients access the virtual reality technology right from their homes.

Alam is excited about the potential applications of virtual reality in health care. 

“Immersive content is just in its infancy, and it has nearly limitless possibilities. We can create any type of virtual environment and immerse the user instantaneously into what we have created.”


Assistant Professor Fahad Alam talks to a patient about the surgical process using virtual reality technology