Hong Kong stroke victims take a virtual journey to recovery

Patients learn to cross the road, take the escalator and go shopping from a safe indoor setting

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 June, 2017, 7:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 June, 2017, 10:10am

Virtual reality (VR) is helping stroke survivors in Hong Kong to regain confidence and the ability to perform daily tasks.

At Kowloon Hospital, people with cognitive impairments can practise crossing the street and shopping for groceries on VR devices without exposing themselves to danger.

Occupational therapist Dr Serena Ng Sin-wa was given an annual outstanding staff and teams award by the Hospital Authority in May for applying the technology.

Due to the brain damage that occurs during a stroke, survivors often experience difficulty in moving, thinking and communicating.

“Conventional treatments only have limited effects,” Ng, head of the Community Rehabilitation Service Support Centre, said. “Many patients still choose to stay at home all day after they are discharged, because they are too scared.”

To improve their quality of life, Ng’s team developed a series of VR programmes that simulate the environment of kitchen, supermarket, ATM machine and MTR station.

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Their latest invention is a device that lets patients experience taking the escalator and crossing the street in a safe indoor setting.

Among 20 patients who tested it in 2016, 80 per cent were able to take a real escalator afterwards, compared with 50 per cent of those receiving conventional training.

“Taking the escalator requires complicated cognitive functions,” Ng said. “They need to move fast and accurately. They also need to keep balance.”

Ng said throughout the training, the device will analyse data from motion detectors to show if the patient has taken the right steps in the virtual journey.

And during the road-crossing exercise, patients hear street noises and see a realistic view from a screen in front of them.

“In the past, we had to take patients to practise on the street every month,” Ng said. “It took a lot of time and the patients often became terrified.

“With the technology, they can perform more complicated tasks at a higher success rate.”

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Over 20,000 stroke patients are admitted to hospital every year, according to numbers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Ng said about 200 patients a year undertake VR training at Kowloon Hospital. Some of the programmes, which can also be used for those with joint problems or brain diseases, have been adopted by other rehabilitation institutions across the city.

With the age of stroke victims dropping, the team plans to develop devices that prepare younger survivors for their return to the workplace, Ng added.

The breastfeeding promotion team at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Yau Ma Tei also took the award for making the institution the city’s first accredited baby-friendly hospital.

Christine Lam Chi-oi, nurse consultant of breastfeeding at the hospital, said the breastfeeding rate their had climbed to about 90 per cent thanks to education initiatives.

Other recipients of the 2017 award include the Chai Wan Laundry at Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital and the Hospital Authority Eye Bank.