February 1, 2018

Oxford team wins government award to develop VR to treat mental patients

Woman on floor

Following on from our recent report about augmented reality being used to help surgeons at St Mary’s Hospital perform reconstructive surgery on lower limbs, bestvr.tech can now report that virtual reality is being trialed by the NHS on mental health patients.

The trial aims to address the problems that psychiatric patients have in dealing with day-to-day situations. Patients will wear a virtual reality headset and in a series of sessions lasting between 20 and 30 minutes will be guided through a series of tasks and situations that to a normal person would be easy enough to handle, but that can pose problems to those with mental health problems.

But the patients won’t be struggling blindly through the sessions. They will have a VR coach who will guide them through the simulation.

Prof Daniel Freeman

Prof Daniel Freeman

The project was developed by clinical psychologist Professor Daniel Freeman of Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry and the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust.

“Patient’s often find it easier to do this work in the virtual world, and enjoy using our VR applications," Professor Freeman explains.

“But the beauty is that the benefits transfer to the real world.”

Human interaction

Human interaction

The visual design of the VR therapy is being led by Jonathan West of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art. He explains enthusiastically:

This is such a fantastic opportunity to involve patients in the design of new and exciting VR therapies. It brings together a great team of designers, patients, psychologists, and computer scientists to work towards something with huge potential for impact.

Of the treatment technology itself, Professor Freeman, explained:

Our new treatment is automated – the virtual coach leads the therapy – and it uses inexpensive VR kit, so it has the potential for widespread use in the NHS. We’re inspired by the opportunity VR provides to increase dramatically the number of people who can access the most effective psychological therapies.

Realizing this ambition will require much work, but our amazing team of patients, NHS staff, researchers, and designers has all the capabilities to achieve it. Over the next three years this major investment should lead to real and positive change in services for patients.

The project consists of a design phase, a multi-center clinical trial, and then the creation of a road map for the treatment. The design phase is to test the treatment for ease of use and to make sure that it can hold the patient’s attention and is fine-tuned to suit their needs. The multi-center clinical trial is designed to verify that the use of this virtual reality approach is beneficial to patients. The road map is to ensure a smooth roll out of the treatment across the country.

The project is being funded by a £4 million grant awarded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) announced by Lord O’Shaughnessy, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Department of Health and Social Care, at the MQ Mental Health Science Meeting 2018 on February the 1st. In his announcement, Lord O’Shaughnessy stated:


Lord O'Shaughnessy

I’d like to offer my congratulations to the winners of this award. We know that tackling the increasingly complex health challenges we face means harnessing the potential of new technology.  Through the NIHR, we spend £1bn per year bringing great British innovations into the NHS for the benefit of patients.

martin hunt

Martin Hunt

To win this award, the Oxford team faced stiff competition from other research teams from all over the UK in a winner-takes-all competition set up last year by the NIHR.

A similar competition has been launched this year.

In the words of Martin Hunt, director of the NIHR i4i program:

I am delighted we have been able to attract and support such an ambitious, potentially transformational project, from a world class team.... I hope that the 2018 competition attracts a similar caliber of applications to enable us to support the translation of more ground-breaking technologies, for the benefit of people living with mental health conditions

The Oxford project was also praised by Dr Jennifer Martin of the NIHR MindTech MedTech Co-operative:

Jen Martin

Jen Martin

"We believe that this collaborative approach will help us to develop a VR treatment that is enjoyable and easy to use, and that will be taken up across the NHS so that as many people as possible can benefit."

Now it is up to the Oxford team to deliver the results that may transform mental health treatment in Britain.

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TonyVT Skarredghost - February 3, 2018 Reply

VR for psychological treatments is very important. I know a lot of people in the field that are excited by the possible future applications…

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