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Engineering a better experience for sick kids

5 March 2018
Designing experiences to distract kids in hospital
Dr Naseem Ahmadpour is working with clinicians at Westmead to design virtual and augmented reality experiences to distract kids in hospital.

Iranian-born experiences designer, Dr Naseem Ahmadpour, country-hopped from Sweden to Canada before joining Sydney in 2016, and it has given her a unique edge in her field.

“Living in different continents from year to year is not the easiest thing to do, but it’s definitely been an advantage in my field. If you’re going to design for people, you need to understand them, and their culture.”

Naseem, an early-career researcher from the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning, has just kicked off a new project at Westmead, developing virtual and augmented reality experiences to distract young children (aged six and up) while they’re having medical procedures – such as stitches, vaccinations and before surgery.

Working in collaboration with paediatricians and anaesthetists at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Naseem is gearing up to research the virtual and augmented reality experiences already available in this space, figuring out what’s working and what’s not.

From there, the plan is to run focus groups for children, parents and clinicians, to see what each of these groups need, before developing interactive technologies and testing them in two clinical settings – induction of anaesthesia before paediatric surgeries and vaccination of children with severe needle phobia that prevents them completing their required immunisation schedule.

Once developed, the technologies could be rolled out in emergency and outpatient departments as well as during day surgery procedures and radiology scans. 

“We’re not sure what form the tools will take yet,” Naseem says. “They could include a completely immersive experience, where the child wears virtual reality goggles and is transported to another world, or they could include an iPad app or a physical object that distracts the child without isolating them from their environment entirely.”

Whatever form they take, this will be the first time such technologies have been designed in collaboration with children, so Naseem says the efficacy is likely to be higher than current tools.

Dr Naseem Ahmadpour.

There’s strong evidence to suggest that virtual reality can be very beneficial in medical environments. One recent study showed that burn patients who used a virtual reality app that transported them into a field of snow felt cooler and experienced less pain.

Meanwhile, Sydney researchers in the School of Psychology are creating an app that allows surgeons to ‘physically’ walk around in a patient’s body while they prepare for complex surgeries.

Naseem, who also has an engineering background and is a member of the University's Human-Centred Technology Group, says the opportunity to work with clinicians at Westmead has been exhilarating – an opportunity to really make a difference to patients’ lives.

“I’m looking forward to spending more time at Westmead this year. It’s such a collaborative environment. You know if you come up with a great idea, people will listen and help you make it happen.”

Collaboration is an important part of Naseem’s research ethos. Last year, with the help of industry engagement funding from the University, she embarked on another project with healthy ageing company Leef to design an online tool to assess the wellbeing of older Australians and help them chose the right products to keep them living in their own homes for longer.

“My intention is to make an impact, to make a difference in people’s lives. Working with industry, and clinicians who are at the coalface, makes sense because it allows you to see how your research is applied in practice and translate it so that it can be used every day by those who need it.”

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