Cuddly kittens and friendly fish: Virtual reality vanquishes vax fears

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When 16-year-old Christine had her first COVID-19 vaccination, she was diving underwater, a boat gently rocking overhead and fish gliding past.

Christine usually feels anxious having injections, but she was so absorbed in a virtual reality program offered at the Sandown Racecourse vaccination hub that she didn’t even feel the jab.

Christine, 16, wears a virtual reality headset as she gets her first COVID-19 jab.Credit:Eddie Jim

Nurses say immersion in 3D images of everything from kitten daycare to swimming with seals has been effective in distracting people who might normally avoid needles or faint with fright.

Sophie Uren, clinical nurse educator at the Frankston community vaccination hub, which is run by Peninsula Health, said virtual reality, or VR, “absolutely” meant some people with needle phobia were getting vaccinated.

The hub is using the VR headset between two and four times a day.

“Already we have assisted people to receive their COVID-19 vaccine that otherwise would have left the vaccination hub without taking the first step to protecting themselves, their family and their friends,” Ms Uren said.

The company Smileyscope, founded in 2019 by paediatrician Evelyn Chan and respiratory physician Paul Leong, is leasing VR headsets to the COVID-19 vaccination hubs at Frankston and the Royal Exhibition Building.

Monash Medical Centre has bought three sets, which are being used at its Clayton hospital and Sandown Racecourse.

The two-minute VR films’ themes range from sitting on a beach to being served breakfast by friendly ghosts.

Some have a narrator saying relaxing words; others have nature sounds. Some show fish (gently) nibbling on your arm, to simulate the feel of a needle.

The view inside Smileyscope’s VR headset.Credit:Eddie Jim

Ms Uren said staff at Frankston have received “extraordinary feedback regarding the positive impact of the VR headset – from both people being vaccinated and staff using the device to reduce anxiety associated with vaccinations. It reduces overall time needed to be vaccinated and prevents fainting.”

She said the seriousness of the pandemic meant staff were seeing people “who would have otherwise avoided needles”. Fear caused some people to faint, which could in turn cause head injury.

Gabby Bunton, nurse manager at the Sandown vaccination hub run by Monash Health, said staff had used the VR goggles more than 50 times since May, and they are now helping about 10 people a week.

“It has made their experience more comfortable and lessens their anxieties prior to the injection,” she said.

Neha Bhardwaj, associate nurse unit manager at St Vincent’s Hospital, which runs the Royal Exhibition Building vaccination hub, said she used the VR technology about twice a shift.

The most common users were girls aged 12 to 15, who were sometimes so anxious they cried.

Christine, from Burwood, who did not want to use her surname, said she knew she needed the COVID-19 vaccine but she wasn’t looking forward to it.

She often feels anxious and dizzy around needles. “I normally feel panicked afterwards. I feel like I can’t breathe.”

Using virtual reality, she overcame her panic more swiftly. “It was helpful to have something else to focus on,” she said.

“It felt like the procedure went really quick and it was calming.”

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