Visual Culture

An artist’s VR work is being used by a New York hospital to help reduce patients’ need for opioids.

Eli Hill
Jun 22, 2018 3:54PM, via Forbes

In spring of 2017, the Bronx-based Montefiore Medical Center envisioned a new kind of distraction for patients: a VR art experience. In order to make it happen, the hospital reached out to artist Tom Christopher.

Christopher is an artist trained in technical drawing for courtrooms and of cars for commercial clients, but he took a looser, more expressionist approach for his VR artwork. Using Google’s Tilt Brush––a virtual reality application used to draw three-dimensional forms––Christopher created immersive, gestural, and colorful depictions of nearby neighborhoods so that pediatric cancer patients could explore a picture similar to their own home, while staying inside the hospital.

Being able to wander through the virtual reality environment Christopher created has reportedly helped reroute the patients’ focus away from their pain. For some patients, the ability to redirect one’s attention also means a lesser need for opioid pain medicines. As Olivia Davis, the assistant curator at Montefiore tells Forbes contributor Charlie Fink:

“The Virtual Reality Fine Art Program at Montefiore seeks to diminish anxiety, pain and opioid addiction through stimulus-rich and curated artistic environments. These experiences will serve as ‘immersive analgesics’ allowing physicians to treat their patients more effectively by improving patient’s health and hospital experiences and reducing reliance on pain medication, especially opioids.”  

Dr. Brennan Spiegel of Los Angeles’s Cedars-Sinai Hospital explained that the VR’s ability to overcome a patient’s focus on pain isn’t universal but shows promise. “It doesn’t work on everybody, but when it works, it really, really works,” he said.

While Christopher is the first to create a VR experience for a very specific group of patients, VR content is also being put to use in other medical centers. A Los-Angeles based group, Applied VR, is treating patients with anxiety, chronic pain, memory loss, and more with VR experiences ranging from games to guided relaxation exercises. In London, Royal Trinity Hospice is using VR experiences in end of life care to help patients check items off their bucket lists.

Eli Hill
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019