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NEW ZEALAND DEVELOPED VR EXPOSURE THERAPY APP HEADING FOR THE UK'S NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE

Adam Hutchinson is one of those people who sees a problem and then from a toolkit of different technologies, tries to solve it. He began with the NZ Fishing Rules app and then CamperMate for campervan travellers and backpackers. Now, his latest app – for Anxiety Disorders – is set for a major pilot in the UK through the National Health Service.  

 

oVRcome uses Virtual Reality (VR) Exposure Therapy to help people with over 15 Anxiety Disorders such as specific phobias - flying, heights, spiders, dogs, and needles. Research has shown that 80 per cent of people with an anxiety disorder like a phobia or social anxiety get no treatment. This is called the Treatment Gap. The main reasons? Cost, location, stigma and a lack of trained psychologists. “Our goal with oVRcome is to make treatment for these anxiety disorders easy and accessible for everyone who needs it, anywhere in the world,” says Hutchinson. 

 

Part of that accessibility comes from enabling the treatment to be accessed via a smartphone and custom-made headset that works and the oVRcome smartphone app. “Targeting the smartphone for treatment isn’t as glossy as something like the Oculus Quest, but neither does it cost the user an extra $700 to access it. A smartphone app increases accessibility and reduces costs.” 

 

March 2020 and COVID-19 had arrived. Hutchinson was becoming increasingly alarmed  by mental health statistics (the problem), so he set about developing oVRcome (the solution) with input from clinical psychologists. To say he moves fast would be an understatement; he had the first version of oVRcome ready 11 months later, in February 2021. But did it work?  

 

“Efficacy of the treatment was the most important factor to establish, particularly when you’re going direct to consumers,” says Hutchinson. “We had to prove it works; we had to get that trust in our product.”  

 

In June 2021, they recruited for a randomised clinical trial with a team at the University of Otago. Mobile health apps for mental health are widely accessible but most have had limited research evaluation, particularly at clinical level. Most VR studies have focused on high-end devices, typically only available in research and limited clinical settings, and for a single phobia. The trial results, published in July 2022, were overwhelmingly positive: a 75 per cent reduction in phobia symptoms after six weeks. The average length of time participants had suffered from their phobias was 26 years. “We had the evidence we needed to help consumers in their decision making, and to present to potential investors and users such as the NHS.” 

 

What makes oVRcome unique? “It’s completely scalable and accessible to anyone with a smartphone wherever they are in the world, and we’re creating new programmes all the tim. For example, a pilot to help teens say no to vaping, a module for driver anxiety following car accidents for a global insurance company, the NHS contract which will help those with autism and learning problems to feel comfortable in medical environments, and school programmes around bullying and social anxiety where we’re seeing a level of anxiety we’ve not seen before.”  

 

Hutchinson and his team are now focusing on three channels. “While we don’t advertise, we’ve managed to be found by users in over 35 countries. These are people unable to access a therapist. We send them a headset so they can start the programme themselves. 

 

“We’re developing bespoke programmes for clients such as the NHS and insurance companies. We combine our expertise with theirs, workshop the ideas and co-design the modules which they then distribute. 

 

“Our third channel is a clinician portal where psychologists can access our entire library of over 1,200 environments for use targeting  multiple conditions, and build bespoke hierarchies for clients for use in clinics and at home.” 

 

Hutchinson says they’ve gone global so quickly partly because of the size of the problem but 2024 will be their most impactful year. “We’ve now developed a lot of the technology we needed to, we’ve clinically proven our product works, and through our channels we have scale and reach.” 

 

He credits the HealthTech Centre in Christchurch as part of their success. “This hub for startups and healthtech businesses means we can share knowledge, rub shoulders with people on similar pathways and access some pretty amazing resources.” 

 

Read more about oVRcome [link to: https://www.ovrcome.io/] 

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