For more than six years Allison Ellington, director of clinical education at Mary Baldwin’s Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences, has been working on a virtual reality product designed to allow individuals to practice real-life activities in a virtual environment. The product, SaeboVR, has recently garnered FDA approval and MDCHS students are gaining research experience with the groundbreaking system.
A local engineering company, Barron Associates, first approached Ellington in 2011 when she was an occupational therapist at UVA-HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital with the idea to create a virtual reality system that would support rehabilitation of the upper extremities after an individual has sustained a stroke or similar injury.
“As an occupational therapist, I helped with the development by working with the engineers to explain how therapists would structure sessions to work on important daily living skills like grocery shopping, cooking, laundry, or pet care,” Ellington said.
At the early stages of her involvement Ellington shared the types and styles of cues for the program and environmental considerations and also helped set up the activities in the software to create just the right challenge for individual clients with different abilities.
In 2013, Ellington had the opportunity to be one of the study therapists for a pilot study of two virtual activities to test the actual engineering metrics behind the software as well as test acceptance of the system by individuals who had sustained a stroke.
“While many other excellent scientists and engineers created the actual product,” Ellington explained, “my role has resulted in a product that is true to the goals and values of occupational therapy and will be effective at helping clients meet their personal goals.”
Following that initial study, the system was expanded to 12 virtual activities, and again Ellington was part of the process by providing feedback on the challenges and functionality of the system from a therapist’s point of view.
More recently in 2016, Ellington was part of conducting a larger study to test the effectiveness of the system. Individuals who had sustained a stroke and completed all the typical rehabilitation were invited to join the study, which showed that using the system three times a week for eight weeks resulted in significant improvements in motor function. In 2017, the results were presented at the national American Occupational Therapy Association Conference (AOTA).
Three doctoral OT students at Murphy Deming who are completing research projects using SaeboVR attended the national AOTA conference to help demonstrate the product. Another small group of OTs from the class of 2018 supported a pilot study of the system’s possible use among children.
The development of the system was made possible through two different National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants, obtained by Barron Associates.
According to Ellington, users enjoy the fact that the system replicates the actual movements they would perform on a day-to-day basis and note that the graphics are visually pleasing. However, Ellington does emphasize that the program is meant to be another tool and option for therapists and patients, not to replace traditional therapy.
So far research and feedback from users of SaeboVR is yielding positive results.
“At Murphy Deming, we pride ourselves on interprofessional collaboration,” Ellington said. “This project is a great example of that collaboration that extends beyond the traditional healthcare team.”