PARIS: The very thought of visiting a hospital emergency department is stressful enough for many people, even without the discomfort or pain of an examination or treatment.
Enter an immersive virtual-reality program created by three graduates being used in France to relax patients and even increase their tolerance of pain - without resorting to drugs.
"What we offer is a contemplative world where the patient goes on a guided tour, in interactive mode, to play music, do a bit of painting or work out a riddle," said Reda Khouadra, one of the 24-year-olds behind the project.
As patients are transported by chunky VR goggles into a three-dimensional world of Japanese zen gardens or snowy hillsides, they become more tolerant of minor but painful procedures such as having a cut stitched, a burn treated, a urinary catheter inserted or a dislocated shoulder pushed back into place.
"The virtual reality project . . . enables us to offer patients a technique to distract their attention and curb their pain and anxiety when being treated in the emergency room," said Olivier Ganansia, head of the emergency department at the Saint-Joseph Hospital in Paris.
"I think in 10 years, virtual reality won't even be a question any more, and will be used in hospitals routinely."
The Healthy Mind startup is not a world first but has landed a US$20,000 prize from a university in Adelaide, Australia - which will now pay for the three founders to present their project at Microsoft's headquarters in the U.S. city of Seattle.