First understanding, next adherence? Using VR to help kids visualize medical findings

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About a year-and-a-half ago, Michael Docktor, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Boston Children's Hospital, attended a medical conference when he saw virtual reality (VR) technology used in a way that caused a “lightbulb to go off,” he remembers. The VR experience, a virtual colonoscopy, was designed to educate physicians on how a particular drug worked.

“I thought, ‘We really need to flip this,'” Docktor tells MM&M. “‘We need to use this technology to help educate kids and their families about their diseases.'”

Boston Children's Hospital, in partnership with healthcare marketing agency Klick Health, are expected to unveil a VR tool that allows physicians to do exactly that. The tool, dubbed HealthVoyager GI, is set to be announced formally this evening at Klick Health's MUSE event, which will feature speeches from Docktor as well as from former First Lady Michelle Obama and others from the worlds of entertainment, healthcare, and life sciences.

Co-developed by Docktor, the VR tool is designed to enable gastroenterologists to build customized, 3D anatomical models of patients' endoscopy and colonoscopy findings, and show it to them in VR on a mobile phone using Google Cardboard or another headset. (The feature also works without VR.) The HIPAA-compliant, platform is being developed to be accessible from within a hospital's EHR, to protect patient privacy.

From the physician's perspective, the web interface “allows you to drag and drop clinical features, such as a polyp, ulcer, or bleeding, into the anatomically appropriate area,” Docktor explains, in addition to more diffuse features such as redness and inflammation. “We have the ability to recreate significant clinical findings in virtual reality that are otherwise hard to describe.”

Typically pediatric gastroenterologists at Boston Children's communicate findings with patients and their families through printouts. Patients and caregivers can launch the HealthVoyager experience by scanning a custom QR code. The hope is that, by translating static, text-based information into visual, interactive tours that let kids explore their own digestive tracts, children will be better equipped to understand and engage with their condition.


HealthVoyager GI is far from the only tech-enhanced tools co-developed by Klick Health. The agency has incubated a number of projects, including a Parkinson's simulator and Circulation, a startup that provides patients with non-emergency Uber rides to hospitals.  

When deciding which health initiatives to back, the agency looks for opportunities to “connect the dots” by applying technological advances that are used in other industries but have yet to be applied to healthcare, says Klick Health CEO Leerom Segal. For example, with Circulation it took an existing transportation platform—Uber—and used it to modernize non-emergency transportation services. “At a high level, we are looking for big opportunities where we see an unmet need and an opportunity to apply technology.”

VR has already demonstrated its versatility in hospitals, doctors' offices, and operating rooms. It's being used to teach physicians new techniques, treat chronic pain, and help patients with rehabilitation following a stroke, among many other applications.


At the moment, Klick said HealthVoyager is in the proof-of-concept stage but is being assessed in a clinical study meant to validate its effect on patient and family understanding, engagement, and satisfaction, admittedly squishy metrics.

In the future, Docktor said he is interested in measuring the technology's impact on adherence. “There's good data to suggest that if patients have a better understanding and recall, they are more likely to be adherent,” he says. “Especially with children, the hope is that they will be more inclined to report symptoms to parents or take their medication.”

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