Virtual Reality for healthcare. Interview with Valentino Megale, founder of Softcare Studios

Softcare Studios wants to connect virtual reality to the world of healthcare. The company has developed TOMMI, a pioneering project in the field of pediatric medicine. The use of virtual goggles and a video game allows to relieve the feelings of anxiety and pain experienced by pediatric patients during stressful medical treatments.

At School of Disruption we interviewed Valentino Megale, founder and CEO of Softcare Studios. We talked about the disruptive possibilities of virtual reality in the medical field and the other two projects of Softcare Studios: Noa and Areal.

D. Softcare Studios is a company that operates in the field of digital health. By using virtual reality the project TOMMI helps patients, especially those of pediatric age, have a better experience in terms of staying in hospital. This idea fits well into the field of Disruptive Innovations. How does an idea such as this translate into realization?

M. We operate in the sensitive field of healthcare. Translating an idea into concrete realization is accompanied by important responsibilities related to the health and safety of end-users: patients. We have developed our concepts starting from the scientific evidence and research history available in favor of the application of VR technologies to support patients.

Then we confront them with the real needs of the target patients, in our case hospitalized and often subjected to painful medical procedures. The design and the development of our projects are informed by such research, based on comparison with medical staff and feedback from patients and their families. As virtual as they are, our products aim to be firmly anchored in the real lives of the patients we plan to support.

D. How does pain relief develop through the use of TOMMI? How does the mind recognize the presence of images that have a soothing function?

R. In the 90s the studies conducted by Hoffman and Petersen have shown that immersing a patient in a virtual reality content induces a series of changes in brain activity. These activities are accompanied by a generalized reduction in the perception of pain, thus allowing to limit the administration of painkillers and sedatives. Often this effect is trivialized mistaking it for simple distraction, but data suggests that the effect is due to a deeper impact on processing nociceptive stimuli.

Based on the available bibliography and our field research, with TOMMI and the other projects developed we focus on optimizing this effect of virtual reality. We want to minimize the perception of pain, limiting the use of drugs and also supporting the work of medical staff. This translates into adapting the interactions with the virtual environment, the game mechanics, the sensory stimuli provided to the condition of the patients, to the details of the performance of the careful medical procedure, and of course the age target of the supported individuals.

“VR should be approached not as a solution to all ills but as a useful tool when effectively integrated into established therapeutic processes”.
Valentino Megale

D. How are the other two Softcare projects, Noa and Areal, developing?

R. Our work is focusing on the pediatric target, however since 2020 we have also started to target adult and elderly patients. We collaborate with specialized clinics and strategic business partners.

NOA consists of a virtual reality simulation of the entire MRI process, and was developed in collaboration with the Villa Serena Nursing Home in Pescara. The project was designed to better inform patients who will undergo real MRI testing and helping them to familiarize themselves with the criticalities of the test and thus limiting the related anxieties.

AREAL is, instead, a VR gaming experience designed to engage and distract adult patients during the long and recurring blood transfusion routines. The project was developed in partnership with the pharma company Novartis. It is currently under pilot study in 3 Italian hospital centers located Genoa, Naples and Padua.

D. Digital, from the point of view of health, is used as a pharmacological surrogate “free from side effects”. Many studies, also mentioned by you, argue that you can alleviate the pain of the patient without resorting to drug administration. Will digital health move in this direction in the near future? And, more generally, what do you think it will invest in?

R. The digital health field offers an innovative range of tools, services and products. Just as digital and focused on the resulting data cycles, they allow extending in time and space both the tracking of the health conditions of individuals and the support that can be provided to them. Above all, they enable them to appreciate and fully approach the patient. In this process is also involved a greater attention to psychological and social well-being that in the past could be less prioritized.

The different technologies involved are increasingly convergent, rather than vertical. I believe that the most significant area will be related to policies and the regulation of digital innovations. We have learned that the disruptive potential of digital comes with exponential responsibilities and risks. They must be anticipated and clarified to ensure socially sustainable innovation. It’s the same, moreover in healthcare, to ensure that digital translates into benefits for all and does not turn into new tools to deepen social and economic gaps.

D. Do you think that the technologies dedicated to Virtual Reality could also be used in other fields, beyond that of stress relief and procedural explanation? I am referring, for example, to the field of mental illness.

R. Virtual reality has a long history of researching under conditions. I’m thinking about anxiety disorders, phobias, PTSD. Is recently accumulating evidence suggesting the possibility of “virtualizing” even protocols in support of patients with depression, autism, eating disorders, and even schizophrenia. In most cases, VR should be approached not as a solution to all ills but as a useful tool when effectively integrated into established therapeutic processes, in which the specialists (doctor or psychotherapist) find useful assets to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of therapy. Integration of the instrument and convergence between available solutions are, in my opinion, the keywords in this area.

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