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Temple Burn Center Using Alternative Reality to Help Promote Healing

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Burn Center outpatient Sharon Hopkins explores virtual worlds while her home health aide films the experience.

Patients who are treated at Temple University Hospital for burns often have a challenging road to recovery. In addition to healing from their physical injuries, they must cope with psychological and emotional issues—trauma from the burn incident, changes in their appearance and function, disruptions to their environment and way of life, and sometimes even loss of loved ones. Temple’s Burn Center provides numerous services for treating the whole person, and helping him or her through the recovery process.

And now there’s another tool to help achieve this goal: virtual reality (VR) headsets. This easy-to-use technology provides outpatients with a chance to briefly step away from the “burn patient” mindset and from their physical and emotional distress. The VR headsets feature a choice of soothing environmental scenes, exciting adventures (like a chance to run free with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park), or lively video games with a full 360-degree immersion in the alternate world, even above and below. Within minutes, most patients learn the system and navigate it on their own.

Stephanie Velez, PT, a Physical Therapist with the Burn Center, explains that studies have shown VR use may actually decrease burn patients’ need for pain medication: “In therapy, we need patients to do things that are painful sometimes, so VR is a way to distract them from that. It can also help enhance range of motion and function.” Studies have shown that the use of VR helps to decrease the patient’s perception of pain during wound care and stretching, thereby decreasing amount of narcotics given during procedures like wound care and therapy.  

The VR units were purchased with a grant provided by former Philadelphia Flyers player Brandon Manning. The son of a firefighter, he toured TUH’s Burn Center on multiple occasions and spoke to support groups. Manning—now playing with the Edmonton Oilers—asked how he could help, and provided funding for the VR headsets.

“It’s beautiful,” raved Sharon Hopkins, a former Burn Center patient who attended the Center’s recent “launch party” for the new headsets. “It’s not that hard to use, I like it.” She shrieked with delight and waved the remote all around while playing a snowball fight game, and was thrilled to climb virtual mountains.

Lisa Rae, MD, FACS, Director of the Burn Center, was excited by the possibilities that the VR units presented. “The technology lets them appear to do things physically that maybe they can’t do in real life, due to their injuries, and that can be healing,” she marveled. Dr. Rae mused that perhaps the headsets could also benefit inpatients, “even for just 5 or 10 minutes, giving them a chance to ‘get out’ of their hospital room!”