On a list of “ways for kids to have fun,” getting a medical procedure in the hospital ranks ... nowhere.

But Novant Health has a new tool to help make the process less stressful: virtual reality headsets, now available to children and teens at Novant Health Hemby Children's Hospital in Charlotte and Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center.

The system from KindVR includes virtual reality, or VR, software designed to help distract and entertain young patients during medical procedures. All of KindVR’s completed clinical trials have shown “a reduction in patient pain and stress,” said KindVR founder Simon Robertson.

We talked with Megan Arleth, certified child life specialist at Hemby Children’s Hospital, about her experience with VR headsets after three months of use at Novant Health.

Help us picture how VR works in this setting

The VR experience comes with a headset and two controllers. The VR goggles cover your eyes. You hold the controllers to navigate through the virtual world you’re seeing. It's like a video game. You’re in charge of where you go and what you do.

In the Animal Valley program, the player is a volunteer at an animal sanctuary. You use your water sprayer to give each animal a drink and wash them off. Look in different directions and you’ll see different animals. It doesn’t feel like you’re in the hospital anymore. You’re in that new virtual setting.

The program is very fun and can encourage a patient to move in ways that are helpful for doctors and nurses during medical procedures.

What’s another popular program?

Patients really like one with an under-the-sea theme. The patient is a scuba diver in an underwater world who uses a color sprayer to bring color back to the ocean. The goal is to help patients manage any pain or stress by immersing themselves in play.

Are there VR programs to help patients through specific procedures?

One option is a virtual practice session for getting an MRI. It prepares patients for the noises of MRI machine, simulates the bed moving into the MRI and encourages the patient to lie still. If the headset detects any movement, it gives you a gentle reminder that it's very important to hold your body still for clear images.

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There’s also a “look up” program that encourages patients to see what’s in the sky. This is great for our oncology population. If they have a port or central line, we need them to look up and out of the way to keep the area sterile during dressing changes.

Can adults benefit from the VR system?

We have a VR-guided meditation program with scenes and sounds of the beach. You can close your eyes if you like while listening. It’s very calming for patients, but we’ve also used it with parents who have newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit.

How child life specialists are involved

Child life specialists help decrease the fear and anxiety that goes along with hospitalization by using play. We meet with the child and family to come up with an individual coping plan.

If the patient wants to use virtual reality, a child life specialist will be with the patient the entire time to talk them through the experience. We know exactly what they’re seeing as they see it.

For the underwater program, after one minute, the specialist might say, “Do you see that sea turtle swimming by?” I know the humpback whale comes next. I’ll keep the conversation going to provide a verbal distraction along with the visual distraction of the program.

How have patients responded?

Patients cope with medical experiences in different ways. Some children don’t want their eyes covered, so they decline the headsets. They’d rather watch a procedure as it’s happening or simply look away. Some teenagers would rather squeeze a stress ball and binge-watch Netflix during a procedure.

But for others, virtual reality has been pretty amazing. We've seen children become immersed in the VR experience. When patients might feel out of control during a procedure, the programs give them control in a different way. They can control how they move through the ocean or which animals they clean in Animal Valley.

Virtual reality has provided another way to connect with patients. It’s become our go-to option for pre-teens and teens, which is great, because sometimes they can be hard to crack. Virtual reality can help us build relationships and trust.