Dr. Gromala, recognized as a pioneer of immersive virtual reality (VR) to manage chronic pain, participated in VRPain2016 in Los Angeles on September 19, 2016. This inaugural conference focussed on the unique convergence of VR and Pain, with a goal of charting a path to move VR forward into the realm of clinical care. Gromala was one of the 17 leading researchers who were invited to speak, and the sole researcher who has primarily focussed on chronic pain since 1991. Joining the researchers who established this emerging field were representatives from the research, clinical, regulatory, funding, and business sectors.
In her talk, “Chronic Pain & the Modulation of Self in VR,” Dr. Gromala outlined findings from her longstanding VR research. Since 1991, Gromala has been creating, building, testing and deploying immersive VR systems that are designed specifically to help chronic pain patients self-manage their persistent chronic pain, along with the other problems — or sequelae — it gives rise to.
In particular, Dr. Gromala noted findings from her studies make it clear that chronic pain patients have specialized needs when it comes to VR. “In order to be responsive,” Gromala said, “I’ve had to take a step back, conduct a number of very specific sub-studies, and in some cases, totally redesign a VR system.”
Dr. Gromala’s concerns for the welfare of patients and pain doctors is noteworthy: “My nightmare is that this second phase of hype about VR may lead those who are not technical experts to buy off-the-shelf VR gear and off-the-shelf VR games, thinking that they will magically reduce pain in patients.” Gromala is also concerned that “some will believe unsubstantiated claims that are made — but are unproven and unregulated — in the tech industry.” One is the idea that sim-(simulator) sickness “is simply a matter of frame rate,” or how fast a computer can display the 3D worlds.
“Obviously,” she says, “I really DO think that VR is incredibly promising as a method to relieve and manage pain in ways that nothing else can. Otherwise I wouldn’t waste years of research.” The trouble Gromala articulates is that “VR is now a consumer technology. It doesn’t have to be tested to the rigorous extent that pharmaceuticals are — not that we want that, but there should be something in between.”
Dr. Gromala argues that sooner or later, we need to implement some level of certification or regulation, “especially for people who are at risk, like patients and kids.” Moreover, she’s concerned that although “we lived through the first phase of VR hype in the 1990s, most people have forgotten those lessons.”
“The last thing that chronic pain patients need is snake oil, yet their doctors aren’t expert in the technology in the same way they are expert in prescribing drugs. Why would they be?”
Dr Sean Mackay, Chief of the Division of Pain Medicine at Stanford University, spoke about how widespread chronic pain is, and how important treatment is, especially given the “opioid crisis” in North America.
As a Canada Research Chair at Simon Fraser University (SFU), Dr. Gromala works closely with collaborators who range from health experts and non-profit organizations to tech and life science companies. “Most important are those on the front line — chronic pain patients and the pain doctors who treat them,” says Gromala. “Therefore, it’s essential to get the results of my research and the systems I build out into the world, as quickly and safely as possible.” To this end, Gromala founded and directs the Pain Studies Lab and the Chronic Pain Research Institute at SFU, and is active in broad initiatives, such as Canada-wide research networks and Innovation Boulevard. “Just down the street, Innovation Boulevard is ‘an agile partnership of health, business, higher ed and government creating new health technologies to improve peoples’ lives’.”
We’re lucky to have such initiatives in British Columbia, and our proximity to Seattle and the Silicon Valley gives us extraordinary opportunities” says Gromala.
The conference was made possible by the May Day Fund, a non-profit organization that “is dedicated to alleviating the incidence, degree and consequence of human physical pain.” May Day funds “innovative projects to close the gap between knowledge and practice in the care and treatment of pain.”