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Photo by: Ringling College of Art and Design

The idea of having an MRI scan may not be a pleasant one for some.  The words “tunnel”, “dark” or even “claustrophobic” can come to mind. A partnership between Moffitt Cancer Center and Ringling College of Art and Design is hoping to put those fears to rest.

The INDEX Virtual Reality project is designed to enhance the cancer patient experience and improve the accuracy of MRI-guided radiation therapy. The partnership began in 2019 to explore the creation of meaningful digital technologies to help decrease stress and enhance understanding for newly diagnosed patients. Soon, patients will be able to participate in a fully virtual MRI simulation that takes the fear and anxiety out of the process, allowing them to feel prepared when it’s time for their real MRI.

Dr. Sarah Hoffe, section head of Gastrointestinal Radiation Oncology

“Patient stress levels at the time of a cancer diagnosis are very high, and core to addressing some of that stress is reducing fear of the unknown,” said Dr. Sarah Hoffe, Moffitt’s section head of Gastrointestinal Radiation Oncology. “We need to deliver highly precise treatment so patient cooperation is essential. To be able to deliver immersive content through VR headsets can serve to alleviate some of that stress by allowing a new patient to virtually walk through the experience before beginning their treatment.”

As the patient breathes in and out during MRI radiation therapy, a tumor and surrounding healthy tissues can shift in position, so it’s very important to encourage patient stillness and train them to hold their breath during the beam activity. According to Hoffe, nervous patients tend to take up to a half hour longer to get through a successful MRI. Some back out altogether. With VR training it’s estimated that Moffitt can serve approximately 25% more patients on a daily basis through MRI scans.

Through VR training, patients use the integral headset laser to select simplified menu options to explore the mechanics and train in the breathing game. A controller is fastened to their chests to monitor breathing.

“To make the tech applicable to all, especially patients unfamiliar with VR, we gamified the process and simplified the control inputs,” said Joseph Janssen, a student in Ringling’s Virtual Reality Development program. “While undergoing treatment they are also able to choose from calming scenarios we developed to assist in relaxation during the breath-holding period.”

At Moffitt, digital care has been a cornerstone of the institution’s mission to put patients first. 

Dr. Edmondo Robinson, chief digital innovation officer

“Leveraging virtual reality to enhance the patient experience while also delivering cutting-edge patient care is perfectly in line with the goals of Moffitt’s new Center for Digital Health,” said Dr. Edmondo Robinson, Chief Digital Officer at Moffitt. “Digital health innovations should be hyper-focused on solving the most pressing challenges in health care by elevating the patient experience, accelerating clinical research and delivering cutting-edge clinical care, often right at the fingertips of the patients. Virtual reality is quickly emerging as one of the most promising technologies to help realize the potential to accelerate health care delivery and research and will continue to drive digital health innovation into the future.”