IWK physical rehabilitation seeks solutions in virtual reality

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When IWK Health’s Dr. Jordan Sheriko was looking for a safe and engaging way to teach youth to navigate the world in a power wheelchair, he soon realized that he would have to look beyond healthcare to find an innovative solution. The pediatric physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist reached out to a Halifax, NS virtual reality (VR) company, Mars VR Lab, to see if they could help.

“Complex problems require an interdisciplinary group to identify and create solutions together,” says Sheriko. “And technology solutions require skill sets not often available in academic or healthcare organizations.”

The IWK Rehab and the Mars VR teams set to work on creating a virtual reality program that could teach kids aged four to 18 how to use a power wheelchair. The idea is that the game aspect of VR would help engage youth while helping the wheelchair user gain the necessary wheelchair driving skills, all in a safe environment. The platform would also increase the data available to clinicians, potentially increasing the accuracy of identifying physical limitations and progress in skill acquisition.

Currently training involves several clinicians, the patient and family, and at times the wheelchair vendor to help the patient learn to navigate with a power wheelchair in the real world. The wheelchairs themselves can cost between $35,000-$50,000. The virtual training environment eliminates the risk of injury or damage to property.

Research Coordinator Sara Drisdelle, photo by Scott Thieu, IWK Health

“We know the VR space and how to build fun and engaging games’” says Daniel Baldwin, CEO and co-founder of Mars VR Lab. “We also have the expertise to build large-scale enterprise software that provides insights and analytics that clinicians and therapists have never been able to see before. We give them actionable data, specific to each patient.”

And future users of the VR software are not the only ones who benefit from collaborations such as the one between IWK Health and Mars VR Labs.

“I think there are immense future opportunities to combine the strengths of clinical teams, including their knowledge of healthcare barriers, clinical research and problem-solving, with the strengths of industry partners in innovation and development,” says Carrie Ricker, counsel for IWK Health Innovation and Legal Services. “This partnership is a great example of collaboration that reflects a true shared commitment to improving care for children and families.”

“Technology and business entrepreneurs rarely have the knowledge or understanding on how to build something that the medical establishment truly needs,” says Baldwin. “And medical experts don’t often have the technology/business experience, connections or time to pursue building these kinds of solutions.”

Such partnerships also enable both parties to tap into resources that might not normally be accessible to them.

“Funding from traditional academic and research sources are extremely challenging to access,” says Sheriko. “Innovation partnerships allow opportunities to leverage different sources of funding.”

IWK Health and Mars VR Lab will co-develop the program and will share revenue if it is successfully commercialized. The program is currently set to begin clinical testing.

“We feel like we are just getting started,” says Baldwin. “We pinch ourselves; we can’t believe how it has all come together and this is the work we get to do every day.”