Assessing Virtual Reality as a way to Prepare Kids for MRIs

We investigated whether experiencing an MRI in virtual reality (VR) beforehand could help prepare children and their families for medical imaging, reducing their anxiety about the upcoming procedure.


The Digital Lab



Virtual Reality


Each year, more than 4500 medical images are captured at BC Children’s Hospital. However, long waitlists can last months or even years. Taking a medical image can be a stressful process for kids and families. This is because the machine used to take the images makes loud noises and creates an unfamiliar environment for them. Kids also need to stay really still during the pictures. For some kids, practicing this process is all that is needed. At the BC Children’s Hospital, we have two options to help kids and families practice for MRIs:

  1. The Child Life Program works one-on-one with kids and families to practice taking pictures using a fake MRI machine at the hospital.
  2. Certified Child Life Specialists offer a book with photos that show kids and families what to expect for their upcoming pictures.

When the doctors and their parents don’t think the kids will be able to stay still (about 45% of the time), medication is used to make the process move forward seamlessly. Doctors always recommend children under 7 years old who cannot meet with a Certified Child Life Specialist take the medications.

We wanted to know if a virtual reality (VR-MRI) experience could be a new option to help kids (ages 4-13) and their families get ready for medical imaging. As the BC Children’s Hospital provides care for children across the province, some have to travel over 1000 km if they need to visit the Certified Child Life Specialist. A digital and immersive option like VR-MRI would be an accessible solution to those living far away.

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We randomly gave families one of three options (virtual reality, the hospital’s preparation book, or the Child Life Program) to prepare for an MRI of the head. After practicing, we asked the kids to take a 6-minute head scan. Since we were not sure how kids and their families were going to respond to VR-MRI, we used a pretend MRI for this part.

We wanted to know how children using VR-MRI performed in the medical image compared to what is currently offered at the hospital, if and how worried they felt, how long it took families to prepare, and how much they liked their preparation materials. We also asked their caregivers similar questions.

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Our study showed that VR-MRI was an acceptable and useful way for kids and their caregivers to practice for an upcoming medical image. Kids who took part in VR-MRI did just as well at staying still during their MRIs as kids who practiced in-person with our hospital’s Child Life Program. VR-MRI was also just as good at managing worries as compared to the hospital’s standard programs. Our research shows that VR-MRI may be a better alternative to the book, as kids spent the most time engaged when preparing with virtual reality, and it was better at reducing stress for parents.

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VR-MRI is safe, acceptable, and effective for helping kids and their caregivers practice for upcoming medical images. Similar programs have been able to decrease the frequency of sedation by up to 34.6%. We are planning to launch and test VR-MRI in the real-world with hopes to improve patient safety and reduce wait times for kids who cannot travel to the hospital to prepare with a Certified Child Life Specialist.