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Penn Nursing recently received a grant to implement virtual reality in the treatment experience for patients. Credit: Oscar Vasquez

University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing received a grant to study how virtual reality can decrease isolation and improve the treatment experience for patients with end-stage kidney disease. 

The Hillman Serious Illness and End of Life Emergent Innovation program, which supports the development of new end-of-life care interventions, gave $50,000 for the project. School of Nursing professor and Vice Chair of the Department of Biobehavioral Health Sciences Lea Ann Matura will lead the study, according to the Penn Nursing news release

Hemodialysis is a life-saving treatment for end-stage kidney disease patients that involves filtering the body’s blood for multiple hours three times a week. The process is described as incredibly isolating and uncomfortable, leading some patients to skip treatment.

The Rita and Alex Hillman Foundation grant will allow Matura to lead an 18-month pilot study connecting patients from Philadelphia outpatient centers in an immersive VR film theater. The study aims to replace the dull, uncomfortable experience of hemodialysis with an engaging one where patients may choose how to spend their time during treatment. 

“VR compels an understanding of the needs and preferences of patients and lends itself to multidisciplinary integration providing enhanced holistic care,” Matura told Penn Nursing. “It also focuses on caring for the patient rather than treating a disease.”

Researchers from Penn Medicine, the Annenberg School for Communication, and the New York University College of Nursing will also work on the study. Penn Nursing will partner with the Annenberg Virtual Reality ColLABorative, which supports interdisciplinary exploration and theory building through virtual and mixed reality technologies at Penn.

The Hillman Foundation awards grants across three programs to advance the health of marginalized populations. The grant program that will fund the Penn Nursing project focuses on innovative, early-stage interventions related to serious illness or end-of-life care. This year, the foundation awarded $500,000 across nine grants, with a particular focus on health equity, according to a press release

“The quality of care delivered at the end of life is a bellwether for our society,” Ahrin Mishan, the foundation's executive director, said in the press release. “We believe that nurse-designed innovations can help to ensure that all people with serious illness have access to the compassionate, equitable and trustworthy care they deserve.”