Gloves, scalpels, scissors… and for patients, virtual reality headsets! A surprising new piece of equipment is finding its way into operating rooms, thanks to Strasbourg-based startup HypnoVR, which is launching tools to make life easier for anesthesiologists who use hypnotherapy as part of their work. “Medical hypnosis has been around for 20 years. We know it works: it can be used to treat pain and anxiety, to reduce the doses of anesthesia drugs—as well as their side effects—and to improve recovery,” explains Nicolas Schaettel, one of HypnoVR’s founders.
This method is becoming more and more widespread in hospitals, but hypnotherapists—victims of their own success—do not have enough time to devote to their patients. Founded in 2016 by two anesthesiologists and an entrepreneur, HypnoVR offers a solution: virtual reality software and headsets that allow hypnotherapists to take care of several patients at the same time.
Virtual reality for medical hypnosis
“When you perform hypnosis, you wish you could do it for everyone: it makes the patient feel great,” explains Chloé Chauvin, co-founder of the startup and herself an anesthesiologist who has been practicing hypnosis for five years. “But it’s time-consuming: when you’re performing hypnosis, you can’t do anything else during that time. The idea is to make multisensory isolation of the patient easier using the virtual reality headset.” Patients are then immersed in a virtual world that helps them to let go, exactly as they would with a hypnotherapist. “It’s not about using technology for technology’s sake. We’re solving a tangible problem in the everyday lives of healthcare professionals,” Nicolas Schaettel adds.
To do this, the Strasbourg-based company—which employs five people and expects to hire three more employees in the near future—is creating dedicated software. Patients who would like to undergo hypnosis using a virtual reality headset can choose between three visual worlds—mountain stroll, beach, or deep sea diving, combined with a soundscape and a voice. The film shown inside the headset follows the structure of a hypnosis session.
“I use the headset on a weekly basis,” continues Dr. Chauvin, a specialist in pediatric medicine at Hautepierre Hospital in Strasbourg. “Right now, virtual reality is just as good as hypnosis with a therapist. The advantage is that the headset can also be used after the fact: for example, after a painful procedure if a child asks for it at 10 pm. Even if the anesthesiologist has left, you can just put it on—there’s a 20-minute scenario and the child is calmed for hours,” she adds.
“It’s not magic”
Three clinical trials have already shown encouraging results for the software created by HypnoVR. But there is still a great deal of research to be done in this area, as Dr. Chauvin and the company’s third founding member, Dr. Denis Graff, point out. Given that 12 million anesthetic procedures are performed each year in France, the widespread use of these virtual reality headsets could enable hospitals to save money, by opening the door to more outpatient procedures and reducing the costs of patient hospital stays, as well as the amount of pain medication used.
However, the system does have its limitations—it could not work for major abdominal or thoracic surgery. “It’s not magic or stage hypnosis—although Messmer is brilliant,” Dr. Chauvin says, smiling, in reference to the French Canadian hypnotist. “But the virtual reality headset is a very useful addition to a doctor’s toolkit.”
After raising €700,000 for its launch, HypnoVR is just starting to sell its software and headsets, via a subscription system. Discussions are also well underway with 30 or so hospitals in France. Denis Graff, Chloé Chauvin, and Nicolas Schaettel’s idea may even be exported in the near future, as the company has been invited to the prestigious CES trade show in Las Vegas in January.