The Royal Trinity Hospice in London may be the United Kingdom’s oldest hospice, but it incorporates some of the newest, most cutting-edge palliative care techniques available. The hospice is the only palliative care specialty provider in central and southwest London, offering in-home and inpatient nursing and medical care within a community of 750,000 people. The institution’s mission is “to provide skilled, compassionate care and support to people with progressive, life-limiting illnesses and those close to them.”1 At any one time, Trinity cares for approximately 700 residents. In addition to benefitting from skilled nursing and medical care, residents and their loved ones receive support through counseling and bereavement services and such resources as physical and occupational therapy, music and art programs, pet therapy, and therapeutic massage. Now Trinity’s hospice residents can experience something totally new: a therapeutic intervention using virtual reality (VR).

How the Technique Is Used

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Virtual reality (VR) is a video technology that generates realistic photographic or animated 3-dimensional and 360-degree images accompanied with sounds from the actual environment. When donning a VR headset and headphones, the viewer is surrounded by visuals and sounds that give the impression of being physically present in that environment.

Turning to the right, for example, the viewer will see and hear what was happening on that side when the video was filmed. Turning around to see what is behind, the viewer will experience what was going on in that direction. The viewer feels totally immersed. VR has been used with animation for gaming so the player feels as though he or she is actually in the game or fantasy. It is similarly adaptive to a hospitalized patient who yearns to do things outside of the hospital, but cannot.

VR as a treatment intervention came about as the result of a collaboration between Royal Trinity Hospice and Flix Films in London. The project is managed jointly by Letizia Perna-Forrest, head of Patient and Family Support at Trinity, and Leon Ancliffe, founder and managing director of Flix Films. Ancliffe had used VR to help an immobile patient with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) who longed to swim with dolphins. After Ancliffe had made a VR film creating that virtual experience for her, the patient told him it had given her the sense of movement that her disease had taken away, and that she had actually felt as if she was swimming. The videographer realized there was a place for VR in health care and joined with the hospice therapist to research the feasibility and effectiveness of VR therapy in a palliative care/hospice situation.

The team has been delivering VR to residents in the hospice with great success. The technology allows residents to relive memories, return to places of emotional significance, or check something off their “bucket list.” The Trinity project was featured on the BBC One program “Inside Out London.”2 The collaborators believe VR is most beneficial for hospice residents who still have full range of motion and cognitive, auditory, and visual capabilities.