Virtually Groundbreaking

An innovative local partnership seeks to ease patient anxiety without the use of medication.


Dental exams, routine medical appointments, unexpected (or expected) surgeries, cancer treatments — depending on the individual, each can cause considerable fear and anxiety. Sophia Shanahan, a Marquette University graduate research assistant, is looking for ways to change that. 

Shanahan is part of Marquette’s Visualization Lab (MARVL), a place where students and faculty collaborate on projects using the latest digital tools and technology. Since 2017, Shanahan has been working on a pilot study to test patient anxiety levels involving two types of treatment modules: one using a video and the other using a virtual reality (VR) experience. 

Shanahan’s partners in the process are a dream team of experts from both sides of the aisle, specialists and engineering professors from Marquette and doctors, nurses and a behavioral scientist from the Medical College of Wisconsin — all part of Marquette University and the Medical College of Wisconsin’s (MCW) Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering. Three years ago, the colleges teamed up to combine resources and to streamline biomedical innovation. The partnership connects Marquette’s distinguished engineering education and research, and MCW’s cutting-edge biomedical clinical practice. The partnership is on track with current trends in higher education. 

“Clinicians and engineers are involved in two different sides of health care,” Shanahan says. “The Marquette/MCW partnership bridges that gap. Understanding what goes on … makes both sides more knowledgeable and better at doing our jobs. It has provided me with an unparalleled learning experience.” 

Shanahan’s trial opened last August. One half of the group watches a video about their upcoming treatment. The same information is delivered to the other group via virtual reality. Virtual reality, commonly abbreviated to VR, is a technology that simulates a fully immersive virtual or imaginary environment in which a user feels that they are physically present.  

Doctor/Patient Interaction

“The virtual reality education program simulates the process of receiving radiation therapy for breast cancer,” Shanahan says. “The VR program is narrated by Dr. Monica Shukla, assistant professor of radiation oncology and associate residency director at the Medical College.” 

Shanahan and visual technology specialist Chris Larkee, her MARVL mentor, filmed Dr. Shukla talking in the green screen studio at Marquette and then imported the video in to the VR program. “For patients wearing the VR head-mounted display,” Shanahan says, “it looks like Dr. Shukla is standing right there talking to them.” 

Dr. Shukla has been practicing medicine for 10 years and has seen her share of patient anxiety. She believes that combining technology with clinical practice makes good sense. “As a clinician, you understand the fears, but you don’t know how to develop virtual reality,” Dr. Shukla says. “They (Marquette) have the technical expertise to build this environment, and I understand the patient. Bring the two together, and you have a better experience for the patient.”

With Dr. Shukla narrating, the VR program takes patients into the actual rooms where treatment occurs, familiarizing them with whom and what they will encounter. At the end, the camera view changes, and the patient gets to experience what it feels like to be lying down and receiving radiation. The VR simulation includes the sound the machine makes during treatment. 

 “A virtual walkthrough experience could be very beneficial in helping to reduce the stress and anxiety related to an upcoming procedure,” says Dr. Thomas Stauss, a pain management specialist and one of the founders of Advanced Pain Management. Stauss been practicing medicine for 32 years and has witnessed many changes in how issues of pain and stress are addressed. 

“Patients are often intimidated by the unknown,” Stauss says. “An opportunity to familiarize themselves with the process can go a long way in reducing that fear.” 

Shanahan and her colleagues believe this too. This study is in the early stages, but moving along as hoped. 

If all goes as planned, Shanahan will use patient questionnaires filled out before, during and after the experience to see if her idea has the potential to help patients of the future. 

“There are many different areas and niches within medical research,” Shanahan says. “What we are doing with this project does not aim to cure the disease or prevent patients from needing the treatment, but to make the treatment process less stressful.” MKE