VR 250

Research takes children on a virtual journey

Date: 03 December 2018

A brand new clinical trial seeks to take over 300 children on a virtual journey.


The trial is just one of many innovative studies supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and was part of an exciting launch on 28 November.

It uses a clever new virtual reality (VR) app, designed by researchers which aims to help children overcome nerves and anxiety before hospital operations.

Over half a million children in the UK have general anaesthesia (medically induced sleep) for operations each year.  Around three-quarters of these become distressed or anxious before the procedure, and this is linked with later problems such as difficulty sleeping, nightmares and bed-wetting.

Existing medicines and other treatments to calm children can cause further problems or can be extremely costly to the NHS.

The new app, uses existing VR technology to prepare children for going to hospital and their operation. It enables children to meet cartoon characters of doctors and nurses, who show them what the inside of the hospital looks like, the people they will meet, and the equipment they will see during their stay.

Using a smartphone and a free cardboard headset, kids can roam the hospital corridors, wards and theatres without taking a step from home. The app can be used several times in the weeks leading up to surgery, allowing children the time to familiarise themselves and process new information, taking the fear out of hospital visits.

The research trial will test whether using the VR app reduces anxiety in 3 to 12-year-olds and that of their parents. Of the 304 pre-op children enrolled in the study, half will be given the VR app and headset to use at home, whilst others will be given the headset only, to use for fun with any other openly available VR play apps.

By comparing the level of anxiety between children who do and those who don’t have access to the app, researchers hope to establish how effective it is at reducing anxiety and longer-term adverse consequences in children undergoing general anaesthesia for surgery.

The “Little Journey” app. is the brain child of Dr Chris Evans, a PhD student at University College London (UCL) and was designed with a team from University College London Hospitals NHS Trust (UCLH).  The team, including supervisor Ramani Moonesinghe and designers and developers Sophie Copley, Oliver Binns and Laura Henry, worked with patients, teachers and GPs to develop the app and all are excited about its launch. 


Speaking of their hopes for the app, Professor Moonesinghe said:

“Anxiety is a real problem for many children before surgery and current approaches to treatment are far from ideal. VR games, are increasingly common and popular with children, and we’re hoping that the ‘Little Journey’ will prove popular and effective as a way to combat their stress.

Importantly, the Little Journey app can be tailored to any NHS hospital and if it does prove effective we will be able to quickly and cheaply spread the technology across the NHS.”



The trial is being funded by the NIHR with financial support from the UCLH charity and the Bloomsbury Innovation Group, a social enterprise which aims to bring innovation to the NHS at the lowest possible cost.

It will run at several NHS centres across the UK, with its initial launch at University College Hospital, London. NHS Digital have created a short video explaining how to use the app and you can download a copy for free.

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    Clinical Trial uses virtual reality app to help children overcome nerves before operations.
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