Biofeedback relaxation app for young patients feasible during medical procedures

By Dave Muoio
12:16 pm

The mere mention of doctors and needles frequently can leave children in terror, and oftentimes the promise of a lollipop won’t be enough to calm their fears. Newly published research, however, suggests that providers may have more luck managing their younger patients’ anxiety and pain with the help of a biofeedback-assisted relaxation app.

In the pilot study, a team of Australian researchers investigated BrightHearts, an iOS app designed for use with certain wearable heart sensors. The app asks users to focus on their breathing, and displays shifting colors and audio tones based on the user’s detected heart rate. The app can also display changes in the user’s heart rate through a graph display that updates over the course of a session.

"BrightHearts taps into children's interest in devices like smartphones and tablets," Dr. Angela Morrow, senior lecturer of pediatrics and child’s health at The Children's Hospital at Westmead and the University of Sydney, Australia, said in a statement. "Biofeedback is a modality that we hope will empower children and help them to manage their pain and anxiety without the need for medications.”

To investigate the app’s effectiveness in this setting, Morrow and colleagues provided 30 children and adolescents aged seven to 18 years with the BrightHearts app (delivered via iPad) and an ear or thumb pulse oximeter to measure heart rate. Participants underwent one of three medical procedures: peripheral blood collection, botulinum toxin injection, or intravenous cannula insertion. The researchers gauged BrightHearts’ feasibility through observations or feedback from patients, parents, and healthcare professionals, while satisfaction from these three parties was measured through surveys.

According to the study, 83 percent of patients said that they found the relaxation app helpful and would use it again, with all of their parents and 96 percent of healthcare professionals agreeing. Further, 64 percent of the providers said they believed that the app allowed them to perform the procedure more easily.

“This pilot study demonstrates the feasibility of using biofeedback‐assisted relaxation delivered via the BrightHearts app in children undergoing peripheral blood collection and cannulation. Future studies are required to evaluate BrightHearts’ efficacy in reducing pain and anxiety during painful procedures and distinguish the effects of a biofeedback‐mediated app from distraction,” the researchers concluded.

According to the BrightHearts app’s website, another trial of the app is also underway that focuses on high school students receiving HPV vaccinations.

But the app isn’t the only way providers have begun to turn to technology to distract their younger patients. Last year, for instance, researchers described a study that outfitted children with virtual reality goggles during seasonal flu vaccinations.


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