SAN FRANCISCO — Virtual reality is often confined to the usual Silicon Valley crowd — mostly white and mostly wealthy. But at Stanford University, a new clinical trial is testing the technology in an underserved population: Spanish speakers with limited proficiency in English.

The idea for the trial was dreamed up by a 24-year-old researcher who noticed that Spanish-speaking parents of pediatric patients undergoing medical procedures were showing more anxiety than is typical in those cases, often because of language and cultural barriers. That parental anxiety could sometimes trickle down to their kids, making them more anxious about their own procedure.

And so the researcher, Ahtziri Fonseca, thought of something that might help. Her team already had software meant to guide users through breathing exercises in virtual reality — with voiceovers in English. What if Fonseca, who is Latina and a native Spanish speaker, could help translate those voiceovers into Spanish so that Spanish speakers could try the technology, too?

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Fonseca’s idea led to the new clinical trial, which has enrolled close to 10 Spanish-speaking parents since it started in August. When parents are waiting in the pre-operative area before their child goes in for their procedure, the researchers ask if they’d like to participate in the study. As soon as children get wheeled in for their procedure, their parent puts on the virtual reality headset — transporting the parent into a calming natural world where a waterfall flows and an aurora of colorful lights fill the night sky. A Spanish-language voiceover talks the parent through breathing exercises.

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After a session lasting six or 10 minutes, the parents are instructed to rate their own anxiety on a scale from 1 to 10. (A control group that simply waits for six or 10 minutes also rates their anxiety level.)

Fonseca, who works at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital as a clinical research coordinator, is hoping to expand the trial, now in a pilot phase, to include a randomized group of 250 English and Spanish-language speakers, as well as assess the anxiety levels of the pediatric patients whose parents try the virtual reality experience.

One of the key aims of the study is to bring clinical research to a population that doesn’t always get to benefit from it.

“A lot of times Spanish speakers are excluded from studies, just because of a lack of resources, or you don’t have someone there who can consent in Spanish,” said Fonseca, who’s now 25. “I thought the VR application would be something that would be easy to translate — and be helpful.”

This story is adapted from a recent edition of STAT’s West Coast newsletter, Go West. Like it? Consider subscribing to get it in your inbox every Wednesday morning.

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