Psychologist Hunter Hoffman demonstrates virtual reality on Capitol Hill

VR program “Snow Canyon” helps ease pain of burn patients.

Hunter Hoffman and his University of Washington colleague David Patterson have been working on clinical health applications of virtual reality for more than twenty years. The programs they have developed and tested, including “Snow World” and “Snow Canyon,” have been shown to reduce the need for pain medication in burn patients during painful wound care procedures.

With laptops and VR face masks in tow, Dr. Hoffman showed this technology to policymakers, congressional staff and at least one member of Congress during the Coalition for Health Funding’s Public Health Fair, an annual hands-on event on Capitol Hill.  The American Psychological Association is a member of the Coalition for Health Funding, a group that advocates for sustained funding for all the U.S. Public Health Service agencies (including the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Health Resources and Services Administration.)

Dr. Hoffman introducing Rep. Roger Marshall, MD (R-KS) to “Snow Canyon”.

Dr. Hoffman introducing Rep. Roger Marshall, MD (R-KS) to “Snow Canyon”.

When “Snow World” was first developed in the late 1990s, the virtual reality helmet for its use cost $35,000.  The cost of the technology has dropped dramatically since then, and the “Snow Canyon” program can be used with a $500 face mask and noise-cancelling headphones. The drop in cost makes it possible for hospitals and other health care settings to use this technology.  Health care institutions are eager for non-pharmacological adjuncts to traditional pain medication, especially programs like these that have strong data supporting their effectiveness.

Attendees at the Public Health Fair were able to wear the mask and experience how the immersive nature of virtual reality can distract patients from painful medical procedures.  

Dr. Hoffman participated in a series of visits to members of the Washington state congressional delegation as part of the 2018 Rally for Medical Research, in which he explained his team’s research and thanked the members of Congress for their strong support of the National Institutes of Health, which funds the work.