Virtual Reality for Port-a-Cath Access

Official Title

Virtual Reality for Procedural Distress in Children Undergoing Port-a-Cath Access: A Randomized Controlled Trial


Children with cancer almost universally receive port-a-catheters (ports) to deliver medication, fluids, blood products, and conduct blood tests. Port access requires a needle inserted through the skin to the subcutaneous tissue. Despite the application of topical anesthetic, port access can be painful and anxiety producing. Virtual reality (VR) interfaces provide a strategy to reduce anxiety and have been employed in other painful procedures in children. This trial will explore the effectiveness of VR in children undergoing port access.

Trial Description

Primary Outcome:

  • Behavioural distress
Secondary Outcome:
  • Pain Intensity
  • Fear
  • Immersiveness
  • Frequency of adverse events

Pain management in pediatric oncology patients is a core component of the care provided. Procedures and treatment administration are the greatest sources of pain for these children, often greater than the pain from the disease itself. Poor initial management for procedures can lead to anxiety and fear, along with a heightened pain response for future procedures. Sensitization, which is an increased reaction to pain, may not only occur at a physiological level, but can also psychologically affect these children, resulting in the development of a fear-avoidance response. This can impede the conduct of diagnostic testing and delivery of therapy. It can also result in an overall fear and avoidance of healthcare settings.

Port-a-caths are a medical device that is implanted below the skin, which acts as a type of venous access. They are used in pediatric oncology patients for various reasons including administration of chemotherapeutics, blood products and supportive care medication, venous sampling and diagnostic testing. At our centre, 90% of patients have a port, while the 10% remaining either have a Hickman catheter or PICC line. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), has a treatment duration of two and half years which is facilitated by the insertion of a port-a-cath. To access a port, the area is cleaned in a sterile fashion and a needle is inserted through the skin, into the port. Ports must be flushed with heparin for line maintenance every 4-6 weeks. Currently, topical analgesics such as EMLA (lidocaine/prilocaine), and distraction methods such as interactive toys and watching videos, and anticipatory guidance are employed to help decrease the amount of pain and anxiety children encounter while their port is accessed5,6. Although topical analgesia and child life interventions may decrease the amount of procedural pain and distress, they do not fully eliminate it. Virtual Reality (VR) has been commercially available for almost 25 years, but the initially high cost prohibited widespread clinical adoption. It is being explored as a potential form of analgesia, and has been found to be effective at decreasing pain in numerous settings including in pediatric burn patients undergoing dressing changes, outpatient venipuncture, and port-cath access. The mechanism by which VR works to reduce pain is still unclear, but it has been suggested that it is through distraction. Studies using functional MRI have also shown that VR reduces pain-associated brain activity. For some children, the use of topical agents prolongs the period of distress in anticipation of port access, something, which the use of VR may diminish/eliminate.

Given that VR technology is still quite new, there have been limited studies in the use of VR in port-a-cath access. Sample sizes of previous studies investigating the use of VR in port-a-cath access have been small, ranging between 20 to 59 patients. Additional limitations include the use of non-objective, self-report and proxy measures of distress, use of a non-active comparator (no intervention), and the lack of young children (< 7 years). However, port-a-cath access is common in young children and is often more distressing. Further, for some children the use of topical agents for access creates/prolongs period of distress to do anticipation of port-a-cath access. Behavioural measures of distress are more accurate than self-report and proxy measures. Standards of care to reduce procedural distress usually involves some type of distraction too. To optimize the external generalizability of our findings, the investigators have designed a trial to overcome these limitations, including a larger sample size, an objective measure of behavioural distress, inclusion of younger children, and an active comparator.

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Canadian Cancer Society

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