Virtual reality brings patients closer to home during COVID-19

An innovative virtual reality experience is helping bring comfort to hospital patients who, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, were unable to see their loved ones.

The Immersive Presence Project at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne allows family members to create a virtual reality experience for their loved one so they can feel what it’s like to be back home.

This is the first time that virtual reality has been used to create a completely bespoke personalised experience for a patient that powerfully reconnects them to everything they miss while being in hospital.

Feels like home

The project is run by St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne’s Dr Justin Dwyer and Dr Margaret Ross, in partnership with filmmaker Lynette Wallworth, an Emmy and Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts award winning VR Director, with technical delivery from Phoria.

Dr Dwyer said the effects of COVID-19 have been felt deeply in the hospital, where lockdown and visitor restrictions have amplified the intense vulnerability that patients feel.

“It’s often the little things that patients miss when they are in hospital. The favourite spot to sit in the garden, the dog running to you when you open the door, the chaos of dinner time with kids running around. Even the best hospital stay will be full of unfamiliar and stressful events, and almost universally patients long for anything that brings them the comforts of home,” said Dr Dwyer.

“This VR experience gets them thinking about what home means to them, and brings their loved ones into this process as they plan what to film. Having a tailored VR experience really puts the patient right back where they’d rather be. Patients are deeply moved at finding a sense of home again, even if it’s just for a few minutes out of their hospital day.”

Power and passion

The concept was developed by Lynette Wallworth, who approached the team with her idea for the cutting-edge use of VR during the COVID-19 crisis. Ms Wallworth brought Melbourne based VR company Phoria on-board to support the delivery of the project, while Joseph Purdam, co-founder of Phoria, manages the technical needs of the project. 

Initial support for the pilot project came from generous private donors Margaret Wheeler and Emily Adams and from Vasudhura.

“VR is a powerful, immersive tool, it is intimate and compelling. By turning these incredible technologies over to patients family members and supporting them in creating new experiences via digital means, all that matters about being at home, in the company of those you love, can be eased. That is our entire focus. We’re using a technological tool for a universally understood need,” said Ms Wallworth.

If successful, the team hopes to offer their learnings to other hospitals, both in Australia and worldwide, to aid with other isolated patients during COVID-19.

Patients will be selected based on their medical condition, mental health and cognitive capabilities. 

With the patient’s permission, the team film the patient having their VR experience so it can be later watched by family, who get to see the massive impact the footage can have.  

The Immersive Presence Project has begun connecting patients.