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Bloomberg’s story on virtual reality for pain control was a little too rosy


4 Star


Hospitals Try Giving Patients a Dose of VR

Our Review Summary

Virtual Reality Headset On GamerThe story focuses on the potential use of virtual reality (VR) headsets as clinical tools for helping patients deal with pain by distracting them. The impetus for the story appears to be the fact that the field of VR technology is experiencing rapid growth, which is making VR equipment less expensive.

While the story makes clear that a lot of research needs to be done on VR as a tool for addressing pain, it does mention multiple studies that have already been completed — but it doesn’t offer much information about what those studies found.

It also could have shown more caution about the claims made. For example, the story cites unnamed “proponents of virtual reality” as saying that VR “can be an effective treatment” for Alzheimer’s disease, arachnophobia and depression, but that’s left unexplained.

It also said “the price of a headset and software is tiny compared to the expense of keeping a patient in the hospital for an extra day.” However, there’s no indication that use of a VR headset will reduce extra hospital stays, so we’re not sure why those two things are being compared without at least some explanation that this is a purely hypothetical economic side-benefit.


Why This Matters

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, more than 25 million U.S. adults experience chronic, or daily, pain. And “nearly 40 million adults (17.6 percent) experience severe levels of pain.” Those are big numbers, and pain is a big problem. While there are quite a few treatments available, given the scope of the problem, any new advance in pain management is certainly newsworthy.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?


The story notes the cost of specific VR headsets (from $599 to $799) and says that users would also need to have a computer (costing approximately $999) to run the relevant software. Presumably, the games or other content for the VR systems would also cost money, which the story doesn’t address. The story also does not address whether any of these costs would be covered by insurance or government programs (at this point, probably not).

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

Benefits aren’t quantified. The story mentions that, in some studies, “patients reported less discomfort.” The story also notes that one of these studies found that patients “actually experienced less pain.” However, it’s not clear how much less discomfort and pain. A little bit? A lot? Instead, the story relies heavily on anecdote; for example, citing two patients who found VR useful in addressing their pain.

On a side note, the story also cites “proponents of virtual reality” as saying that VR “can be an effective treatment” for Alzheimer’s disease, arachnophobia and depression — then doesn’t expand on this or even mention any of those conditions again. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary support. Repeating claims from unnamed proponents about conditions that aren’t the subject of the story, and then not subjecting those claims to any critical analysis, does a disservice to readers.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story doesn’t address potential harms. The types of consumer-focused VR technology being discussed in this article are relatively new, and the field is undergoing rapid growth. As such, it can be difficult to determine what harms associated with VR use, much less what the extent of those harms might be. However, that doesn’t mean that nothing is known about potential risks associated with VR. One VR technology provider offers an overview of potential risks associated with its headset, and those risks range from dizziness and seizure for adults and children, to the potential for developmental problems related to balance, hand-eye coordination and multi-tasking in children.

We don’t expect stories to list all of the potential harms associated with any given intervention, but we do expect there to be at least some acknowledgment that risks exist.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The story refers to at least two completed studies, but tells readers virtually nothing about them. Have they been published or presented at conferences? How many patients participated? Did they use control groups? Not only does the story tell us very little about the studies, it doesn’t even give readers enough information to look the studies up themselves if they’d like more information (assuming the studies are even publicly available). Since the story is wide ranging in its definition of “pain” giving the reader additional resources would have been very useful.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


No disease mongering here.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


The story quotes multiple sources, and clearly identifies whether a source was associated with related research or (in one case) had financial ties to the VR industry.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


The story mentions a variety of other pain treatment options. The story would have been stronger if it had discussed if any comparative studies have been done. For example, it refers to pharmaceuticals, but primarily in order to point out that drug use can lead to drug tolerance and be addictive. Similarly, the story mentions that “hypnosis, yoga, and meditation decrease your perception of pain” — but only in a context that indicates VR may use a similar mechanism to also reduce pain. Could VR work as well as these treatment options? Could it work better? Could it be used in conjunction with other pain treatment approaches? Those are questions the story doesn’t address. Even acknowledging that there is uncertainty in this area is useful to readers curious about this intervention.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The story discusses the availability of various VR technologies, but — more importantly — the story also stresses that much more research needs to be done on VR’s utility as a means of effectively treating pain. For example, the story says: “VR’s effectiveness still has to be proven, particularly when trying to combat chronic pain”; and “VR has a lot of promise, but it’s too early for it to be the standard of care”; and “There’s a lot more research needed before VR is going to be widely accepted as a pain relief method.”

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story is, in essence, focused primarily on the novelty of using VR to treat pain — how it might work, why it may become increasingly popular as VR prices drop, and how much work still remains to be done. As a result, we’ll give it a Satisfactory rating. However, there are some things that could have been much more clear. For example, one of the researchers who is discussed in the story — Hunter Hoffman — has been publishing articles on VR’s use to address pain since at least 2000. And a search of Google Scholar turns up more than a dozen studies on the subject, including a review article that was published in 2009.

In short, while much work certainly does need to be done, there’s more work out there than the story might lead readers to believe. The story would have been stronger if it had given readers some inkling of what researchers have already learned, based on the available literature.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


The story does not appear to be based on a news release.

Total Score: 7 of 10 Satisfactory


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