Isla watching the virtual reality film beside an NHS Lothian member of staff

14 February 2024

NHS Lothian Charity supports children to prepare for surgery using Virtual Reality

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NHS Lothian Charity has supported the Royal Hospital for Children and Young People (RHCYP) to become one of the first in Scotland to use a virtual reality headset to help children prepare for surgery.

Thanks to funding from the Hearts & Minds charity, the home of the Clowndoctors, and NHS Lothian Charity, the RHCYP launched its first VR film alongside five headsets at the start of February as part of an innovative pilot. Patients will now be able to prepare for surgery through an immersive virtual reality (VR) experience.

A number of patients and staff members were involved in the development of the VR pilot including Isla Burns, 14, who advised on the script with Hearts & Minds and recorded the introduction.

The schoolgirl takes centre stage in the project after undergoing ten operations and surgical procedures since she was two-years-old and is keen to reassure and help other children and young people.

Isla from Edinburgh had surgery at the RHCYP to lengthen her left leg which had developed to be 8cm shorter than her right. She underwent an initial 8-hour surgery where her leg was broken and then encased in a brace which screwed 26 metal pins into her leg.

Every day, her mum Annabelle had to turn the pins to move Isla’s bones further apart, encouraging a ‘ghost bone’ to grow in between.

Isla said:

When I was a little younger and virtual reality wasn’t used in hospitals yet, it was hard to visualise what would happen before my operations by chatting it through.

“This virtual reality film will help young people by allowing them to see what the wards look like and get an idea of how the whole process works. It is a great visual tool that will help so many kids prepare for their operations and feel less anxious about what is to come.”  

After the operation, Isla’s leg grew 7cm in just seven weeks. She has since had had a further 9 surgeries and spent a full year learning to walk again under the guidance of physiotherapists at the RHCYP.

Under Isla’s guidance, the VR film features the Clowndoctors who are about to undergo surgery at the RHCYP. Alongside the help of NHS Lothian staff, the Clowndoctors showcase a virtual walk through of the pre-operation journey; from the surgical ward, into the anaesthetic room and then into theatre. 

Isla used her own experiences to help the Clowndoctors outline every step of the process and put the minds of younger patients at ease. 

The film, which was produced by filmmakers Neon8 who initiated the project with Hearts & Minds, uses cutting-edge technology which enables patients to have a gentle immersive viewing experience while remaining seated or reclined. The VR headsets needed to watch the film, were funded by NHS Lothian Charity.

The VR pilot is being rolled out within the hospital and will be managed by Play Specialists who generally prepare children for surgery.

Allister Short, Director of Women’s and Children’s Services at NHS Lothian, said:

I would like to especially thank Isla and her family alongside our staff and charity partners who helped to craft this extraordinary VR film.

“When a child is about to have surgery, it is often an emotionally unsettling time for the entire family. It’s hoped that the VR headsets will help to alleviate patient’s anxieties before a procedure takes place.

“I look forward to seeing the positive impact this ground-breaking technology will have on patients and staff.”

Rachel Colles, Co-Artistic Lead, Hearts & Minds, said:

I first tried a VR headset when running a research project for children exploring virtual reality theatre with Neon8. It was fantastic to see the children’s responses and excitement with this medium and it occurred to us that we could use this in our work as Clowndoctors.

“This collaboration with NHS Lothian alongside our fabulous Clowndoctor colleagues has allowed us to create what I hope will be a beneficial and enjoyable way to support children preparing for surgery at the RHCYP.”

Jane Greenacre, Head of Programmes, NHS Lothian Charity, said:

We are delighted to have funded five VR headsets which aim to reduce children’s worries before they undergo surgery.

“The VR headsets will enable children and their parents to complete a virtual walk through of what will happen at each step of their pre-operation journey.

“This is a great example of how NHS Lothian Charity works with NHS Lothian colleagues and third sector partners to support ideas that improve the experience of patients and their families across the Lothians.”

NHS Lothian Charity supports projects across NHS Lothian than enrich the patient experience and enhance the clinical environment.

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