Adam Hutchinson (left) and Dr Cameron Lacey with the oVRcome system.
Can virtual reality help treat people with a fear of flying or spiders?
A clinical trial involving University of Otago, Christchurch, researchers and a Christchurch tech company will seek to answer that question.
The trial will use a smartphone app called “oVRcome” developed by tech entrepreneur Adam Hutchinson to treat patients with phobias and anxiety.
The app is paired with a headset to immerse participants in virtual environments to help treat their phobia.
The oVRcome system draws on principles of exposure therapy, a proven and effective form of treatment, which removes the need to create real life experiences and scenarios.
Senior Lecturer Dr Cameron Lacey, of Otago’s Department of Psychological Medicine, says: “This builds on our research into structured psychotherapy for mental distress and we hope to see this use of technology increase access to effective treatments for people across New Zealand.”
Adam was inspired to develop oVRcome after becoming increasingly alarmed by mental health statistics.
Recognising that access to mental services was a key issue, he began working with a team of clinical psychologists to develop an accessible smart-phone based tool to help.
It is estimated that up to 80 per cent of anxiety sufferers do not seek treatment. Barriers include cost, location of the patient, the stigma of going to a psychologist and the lack of trained psychologists.
Adam says: “Covid-19 has accelerated our comfort with remote healthcare. This presents an opportunity to really address those mental health statistics and provide more accessible support to those in need.
“Whilst there are an increasing number of mental health apps available, many have not undergone clinical trials. We’re looking forward to working with the experienced team at the University of Otago and exploring the true potential of oVRcome to make treatment more accessible and affordable for more people”.
The research team will initially be looking at phobias relating to flying, needles, dogs or spiders. 100 people over the age of 18 are being sought to take part in a three-month trial via smartphone.