Virtual Reality health appointments may lead to improvements in eating disorders

News / News / Virtual Reality health appointments may lead to improvements in eating disorders
29 October. 2020

Virtual Reality health appointments may lead to improvements in eating disorders

Research from the University of Kent and the Research centre on Interactive Media, Smart systems and Emerging technologies - RISE Ltd (www.rise.org.cy) has suggested the potential for Virtual Reality (VR) technology to have significant impact on the validity of remote health appointments for those with eating disorders, through a new process called Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET). This research published in Human-Computer Interaction Journal is titled: “Now I Can See Me” Designing a Multi-User Virtual Reality Remote Psychotherapy for Body Weight and Shape Concerns.

Exposure Therapy (ET) is a common behaviour therapy treatment for psychological problems involving fear and anxiety. Through repeated exposures to the object of fear or anxiety, new learning is achieved with the result of better emotional management. Notably, Multi-User Virtual Reality has demonstrated success in the treatment of anxiety, social and general phobias, low self-esteem, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This paper demonstrates the potential value of Multi-User Virtual Reality remote psychotherapy for those with body shape and weight concerns.

In the study, recruited participants and therapists were placed in separate rooms, to then be fitted with the VR Head-Mounted Display of an Oculus Rift and then finally introduced to the therapist within the VR system. Here the participant would customize their virtual avatar according to their look (body shape and size, skin tone and hair colour and shape). After setting up the avatar, both participant and therapist were “teleported” to two Virtual Environment interventions for further discussion and analysis with the therapist, eventually leading to the Mirror Exposure.

Mirror Exposure usually involves confrontation in a mirror with ones’ shape and body. In the MUVR, the participant faces the virtual avatar customized by the participant to match their own physical body. Here, participants were again able to virtually adjust body shapes using virtual sliders, change clothing, skin tone, as well as hair style and colour. Clothing would then be gradually reduced until the participant’s avatar was in their virtual underwear.

At this point the participant was asked to look carefully at each part of the body and perform the appropriate adjustments while describing their feelings, thoughts and concerns with the therapist, leading to exposure to ones’ body shape and size via the customised avatar.

The study found that the avatar of the therapist was important to the participant, with the design akin to a cartoonish cube resulting in greater openness from participants, whilst therapist avatars in human-form represented potential judgement for those participating. In post-session interviews, participants described the importance of the lack of judgement enabling them to commit to the aims of the session fully.

Dr Chee Siang (Jim) Ang, Senior Lecturer in Multimedia/Digital Systems and Supervisor of the study said: ‘The potential of Virtual Reality being used in addressing health issues with patients, remotely and without the issue of potential judgement, is for VR to be utilised throughout the health sector. Without the issue of judgement, which people can fear in advance of even seeking medical advice, this study shows that VR can aid people in having the confidence to engage with and embrace medical advice. In terms of the technical capabilities at hand, the potential for VR to aid in remote non-contact medical appointments between patients and practitioners is huge, due particular consideration in times of pandemic.’

Dr Maria Matsangidou, Research Associate at Smart, Ubiquitous and Participatory Technologies for Healthcare Innovation and Experimental Researcher of the study said: ‘Multi-User Virtual Reality is an innovative medium for psychotherapeutic interventions that allows for the physical separation of therapist and patient, providing thus more ‘comfortable’ openness by the patients. Exposure to patient worries about body shape and size may exhibit anxious reactions, but through the remote exposure therapy this can elicit new learning that helps the patient to shape new experiences.’

For further information or interview requests, please contact Sam Wood at the University of Kent Press Office.
Tel: 01227 823581
Email: s.wood-700@kent.ac.uk
News releases can also be found at http://www.kent.ac.uk/news 
University of Kent on Twitter: http://twitter.com/UniKent  

About the University of Kent
The University of Kent is a leading UK university producing world-class research, rated internationally excellent and leading the way in many fields of study. Our 20,000 students are based at campuses and centres in Canterbury, Medway, Brussels and Paris. With 97% of our research judged to be of international quality in the most recent Research Assessment Framework (REF2014), our students study with some of the most influential thinkers in the world. Universities UK recently named research from the University as one of the UK’s 100 Best Breakthroughs of the last century for its significant impact on people’s everyday lives. We are renowned for our inspirational teaching. Awarded a gold rating, the highest, in the UK Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), we were presented with the Outstanding Support for Students award at the 2018 Times Higher Education (THE) Awards for the second year running. Our graduates are equipped for a successful future allowing them to compete effectively in the global job market. More than 95% of graduates find a job or study opportunity within six months. The University is a truly international community with over 40% of our academics coming from outside the UK and our students representing over 150 nationalities. We are a major economic force in south east England, supporting innovation and enterprise. We are worth £0.9 billion to the economy of the south east and support more than 9,400 jobs in the region. In March 2018, the Government and Health Education England (HEE) announced that the joint bid by the University of Kent and Canterbury Christ Church University for funded places to establish a medical school has been successful. The first intake of undergraduates to the Kent and Medway Medical School will be in September 2020. We are proud to be part of Canterbury, Medway and the county of Kent and, through collaboration with partners, work to ensure our global ambitions have a positive impact on the region’s academic, cultural, social and economic landscape.

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