Health Service Focus

31.03.17

My first MRI

Source: NHE Mar/Apr 17

An innovative and free virtual reality app is significantly helping anxious children, their parents and even medical students deal with the unnerving experience of having a scan, Jonathan Ashmore (pictured), an MRI physicist at King’s College Hospital NHS FT, tells NHE.

For Jonathan Ashmore, whose office is just a stone’s throw away from the MRI scanner at King’s College Hospital, the loud whirring of the machine each day has become standard background noise. Often, however, this is accompanied by the not-so-forgettable sound of distressed children having to face their first scan. 

“I’m very acutely aware of the paediatric patients that come through. They either get given a general anaesthetic, which is what happens right outside my office, or sometimes they’ll try to scan them if they can’t get a general anaesthetic and it’s quite upsetting for them. At times, the child will start crying,” the physicist told NHE. “If you do get them in the scanner, there’s a good chance they’ll move around and the images will be a bit rubbish.” 

If even adults can get apprehensive before an MRI scan, one can only imagine how anxious children feel about the “big, scary and ominous machine”, as Ashmore put it, planted in the middle of a room they’ve never seen before. While NHS hospitals do have play specialists, whose job is to help particularly anxious patients get through stressful procedures, most can’t afford a mock scanner to provide a more comprehensive experience of what a real-life scan would feel like. 

To devise a solution, Ashmore resorted to virtual reality (VR): he first began playing around with 360-degree cameras in his spare time and then finally decided to take a leap.

“If I could take some footage from within the scanner, and if you were to view it with a VR headset, you could show it to a child beforehand and let them get accustomed to having their scan before they’re actually there,” he explained. “We could let them use it with their parents at home, or do it with them here before they come in.” 

Teaming up with play specialist Kelly Sibbons, King’s College London learning technologist and app developer Jerome Di Pietro and a resident radiographer, Ashmore’s team recorded footage of the entire MRI pathway – from the waiting area through to the MRI scanning room – from a child’s perspective: lower in height and using child-friendly, soothing voiceovers. And rather than developing an app specifically tailored to expensive Oculus Rifts, Di Pietro ensured that it could be downloaded for free in the Play Store and popped into just about any VR headset. For as little as £3, parents can buy Google Cardboards and guide their child through an MRI scan from the comfort of their homes. 

As well as helping children prepare for the daunting procedure, the innovative app, called My MRI at King’s, has also been shown to benefit students – such as undergraduate nurses studying play specialism – and even parents. 

“We’ve had 17 feedback forms so far and the responses were very good. They all agreed the app was useful in answering the child’s concerns about having their MRI and made them feel more comfortable and positive,” Ashmore explained. 

“But I was talking to a parent who had used it with their child, and they also said it’s been amazing for them as parents, they could try to explain it, but the fact that they can use the app themselves just makes them feel so much better and less scared on the day about what their child will go through.” 

The app itself has been catered for kids, but a 360-degree video filmed from an adult’s perspective will soon be made available on YouTube for other patients. Other adaptations are also more than welcome: The Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, whose staff helped develop the project, is preparing to deploy the app themselves, and Ashmore’s door is open to further collaborations.

The project’s self-evident scalability also means further iterations are already lined up: just this month, Ashmore and his team started working on a similar project designed for children preparing to undergo surgery, recording footage from the reception area up to the moment when doctors put the anaesthetic mask over the patient’s face.

For more information

W: www.tinyurl.com/NHE-My-MRI

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