Published: 15 November 2023
Virtual reality (VR) treatment is making its debut in NHS mental health services, marking an innovative breakthrough. The gameChange VR automated therapy was recently tested in the largest clinical trial of its kind led by Oxford University and funded by NIHR.
The VR therapy has now been approved by NICE for use in treating severe agoraphobia (an anxiety disorder) in patients with psychosis. This therapy enables patients who are housebound with agoraphobia to practise re-entering everyday situations.
The gameChange program was developed collaboratively by a team of experts from universities, health and industry. It also included researchers from the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre (BRC). The program targets a problem that is common in people diagnosed with psychosis. Many of these people have intense fears about being outside in everyday situations.
For many patients, these fears develop into severe agoraphobia where patients avoid leaving the home. This fear of leaving the home causes serious disruptions to everyday life. gameChange is designed to treat this agoraphobia and help patients resume everyday tasks. It was developed in collaboration with people with lived experience. Over six sessions patients practise being in simulations of everyday situations. They can choose what they work on and when. This takes them from a housebound existence to life back in the world outside. This allows them to continue with education, relationships, working life and socialising.
Many adults presenting with a range of mental health conditions often don't get the help they need for agoraphobia. gameChange can deliver VR therapy using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques supported by mental health professionals. This therapy takes less time, making it easier for people to get the help they need.
Professor Daniel Freeman, lead researcher and Chair of Psychology at the University of Oxford said: “gameChange has been designed in collaboration with people with lived experience and can help patients who are largely housebound get back to everyday activities. gameChange was tested in the largest ever clinical trial of virtual reality for a mental health condition – this trial has led to it becoming the first VR therapy recommended for use in the NHS. gameChange can be a way of getting high quality psychological therapy to many more of the people who need it.”
Professor Mike Lewis, NIHR Scientific Director for Innovation said: "The NIHR is incredibly pleased to have supported Professor Daniel Freeman of Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and his team in delivering the gameChange technology under an NIHR i4i Challenge award. We at the NIHR are aware of some of the very moving stories arising from this study of patients suffering from paranoid agoraphobia becoming much more comfortable with themselves and now able to venture outside, something that had previously been impossible for them. The NICE early value assessment now means that this technology is recommended for use in the NHS for the treatment of patients with agoraphobia and agoraphobic avoidance. The NIHR wholeheartedly endorses and supports important research like this as part of our strategy to fund and support research based solutions to today’s health challenges."