Ground-breaking treatment that could transform the lives of mental health patients will be pioneered in Oxford as part of a £4million project.
The National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) last week awarded the grant to enable state-of-the-art therapy for mental health issues to be delivered via virtual reality in the NHS.
Health chiefs want to use Oxford University spinout and virtual reality business Nowican alongside NHS trusts, universities, a mental health charity and the Royal College of Art to design the product.
It works by patients using VR headsets to combat tasks and simulations they may find distressing in real-life.
The VR coach will guide them through the simulations and practise techniques to overcome their difficulties.
The practice is based on the theory that patients find this sort of thing easier in the virtual world.
Project lead, Professor Daniel Freeman from Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry, said: “Our project will see one of the most exciting and powerful new technologies implemented in the NHS for the first time.
“Virtual reality treatment can help patients transform their lives. When people put on our headsets, a virtual coach takes them into computer-generated simulations of the situations they find troubling.
“The coach guides the patient through these scenarios, helping them practise techniques to overcome their difficulties.
“Patients often find it easier to do this work in the virtual world – and they enjoy using our VR applications – but the beauty is that the benefits transfer to the real world.”
Over the next three years the virtual reality treatment will be designed with input from those with mental health problems to ensure it is simple to use, engaging, and right for patient needs.
A large multi-centre clinical trial in NHS trusts across the country will then take place before it is rolled out across the country.
If the trial is successful it could pave the way for VR treatments for common mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety.