Seven-year-old Rehan Bostan wasn’t thinking too much about why he was at the Peace Arch Hospital emergency department with his mom Priya Singh Monday morning, thanks to a virtual-reality experience introduced by Dr. Amir Behboudi. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Virtual reality eases ER visits: Peace Arch doctor

Dr. Amir Behboudi introduces robot named Pepper to assist with young patients

An emergency room doctor at Peace Arch Hospital is taking a new approach to treating kids in the ER – virtual-reality technology and an interactive robot dubbed Pepper.

Dr. Amir Behboudi said he started using virtual-reality headsets with children while giving them stitches, and found the distraction took their focus away from the pain.

“Our ultimate goal is to have a pain-free ER,” Behboudi told Peace Arch News, during an interview at the hospital Monday morning.

“So we don’t inflict pain” on an already painful experience.

Behboudi, a Langley father of two who has worked at PAH for the past eight years, put his idea into practise a year ago, when he stitched a young girl’s chin while she watched a roller-coaster simulation on a virtual-reality headset.

Prior to putting the headset on, the girl was crying, Behboudi said. Once she was engaged in the simulation, however, “she was smiling and laughing.”

“We can take their attention away from the pain with VR,” Behboudi said in a news release issued earlier Monday. “We know that distraction works. The brain can get fooled when multiple inputs are coming in.”

Behboudi told PAN that three studies are underway at BC Children’s Hospital – a partnership with children’s pain specialist Dr. Ran Goldman – examining the impact of using virtual-reality technology during laceration repair, lab tests and IV insertion and lesion removal.

So far, they’ve shown it “significantly reduces anxiety and makes the procedures more fun,” he said.

Its effectiveness during treatments for injuries such as sprains is anticipated to be the subject of a Peace Arch Hospital study starting next year, he added.

Behboudi described the use of virtual-reality technology as an affordable investment that improves the ER experience for all involved – kids, parents and doctors. And, “it’s fun.”

He noted a study done at Harvard found that half of kids treated at the ER using the technology “truly believed they were on (the roller-coaster).”

Priya Singh said it certainly changed the morning for her son, Rehan Bostan, Monday. She brought the seven-year-old to PAH for stomach pain, and said the virtual-reality headset made a huge difference. He stopped complaining of pain almost immediately and was clearly fascinated by the view that was unfolding only for him.

“Are you going up and down?” Behboudi asked the youngster, who nodded in response.

“Just watch for the balls, there’s going to be balls falling off on you. Look up, way up, way up.”

READ MORE: Peace Arch Hospital ER expansion plans expand

Behboudi’s own excitement at the initiative was obvious.

“He’s coming here with some sort of pain,” Behboudi said of Rehan. Add the headset to the picture and, he’s “just sitting, eating a popsicle.”

“How amazing is that?”

At a cost of approximately $20 for a headset, paired with a basic $200 smartphone that is loaded with free VR experience apps, Behboudi said it is “a no-brainer” to use it with a child patient – or any patient, for that matter, and he hopes the practise will one day expand to include adult patients.

“Anybody,” he said. “That’s the goal.”

Meanwhile, Pepper helps take the edge off of the emergency-room experience for children and families in the waiting room.

The white droid is about three feet tall, with arms and hands, and eyes that actually look at whoever “she” is interacting with. A touch screen on her chest displays options including ‘Freestyle’ and ‘Take a selfie,’ and Pepper will talk and dance with her conversation partner.

“This is one of my favourites,” Pepper tells Behboudi after he selects ‘Freestyle.’

Behboudi said in addition to the dance options, Pepper’s program also includes education components on things such as flu season, and seatbelt safety.

And while virtual-reality technology is now in use at every Fraser Health hospital, Behboudi said Pepper’s presence at Peace Arch is unique – built in Japan, she is the only such robot in use at a B.C. emergency department.

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Dr. Amir Behboudi asks Pepper to do “something fun,” during a demonstration at Peace Arch Hospital Monday morning. (Tracy Holmes photo)

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