Health

Could virtual reality therapy help the NHS treat psychosis?

A new NHS trial, which is the world’s first of its kind, is set to test virtual reality (VR) immersion therapy as a potential treatment for serious mental health conditions, such as psychosis.

The gameChange trial is being led by Daniel Freeman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oxford and co-founder of Oxford VR (OVR), which is a global pioneer in evidence-based VR therapy.

Other collaborators include Oxford University, Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, The McPin Foundation, The Royal College of Art, NIHR, MindTech and several NHS mental health trusts.

Given the high costs associated with treating psychosis (estimated to be in the region of £4 billion by 2026 for NHS England), it’s hoped the automated nature of this treatment means it could provide a low-cost option to complement existing care. 

The study team will also analyse the cost-effectiveness of the VR therapy and produce a commissioning case and implementation roadmap for VR Therapy to be used in the NHS nationwide.

What is psychosis?

Psychosis is a serious mental illness which can affect thoughts, feelings and behaviours and have a huge impact on a person’s life. It can lead to anxiety and withdrawal from everyday life.  Typically, everyday tasks become extremely challenging. Work and home life suffer, and mental and physical health deteriorates.

The NHS cares for more than 200,000 people with psychosis every year – accounting for around 30% of total NHS and Social Care expenditure. These patients have a life expectancy 14.5 years shorter than the rest of the population.

The powerful immersive nature of VR technology allows people to experience situations they find troubling in a ‘safe space’ where they know the interaction isn’t real – but the beauty is that the benefits transfer to the real world (OVR published a ground-breaking proof of principle trial in the Lancet in August 2018).

The treatment is automated and an avatar clinical coach guides the patient through VR scenarios, helping them to practice techniques to overcome their difficulties. By applying leading-edge gaming technology design to virtual reality treatment scenarios, patients report finding it easier to do this work in the virtual world – and that they even enjoy using the VR application.

Barnaby Perks, founding CEO of Oxford VR, said: “We are at a moment of real change in advancing treatment for serious, complex and costly mental health conditions and gameChange will show how the very best psychological science when combined with scaleable, state-of-the-art VR technology can revolutionise treatment and deliver a superior patient experience.

“gameChange shows that Oxford VR has the know-how and capacity to go beyond the primary care to create a standard treatment for more challenging and costly mental health conditions.”

The gameChange clinical trial is the second phase of a £4 million project funded by the UK National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) to enable state-of-the-art VR therapy for psychosis to be delivered by the NHS.

432 patients have been recruited to take part in the gameChange clinical trial to test VR Therapy for psychosis across and several NHS mental health trusts.

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