Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

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A BI-WEEKLY PUBLICATION FROM THE CEDARS-SINAI CHIEF OF STAFF June 16, 2017 | Archived Issues

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Can VR Help Lower Blood Pressure?

Cedars-Sinai conducted a feasibility study at Holman United Methodist Church in the West Adams district of Los Angeles. The study is testing whether education and digitally enhanced programming using virtual reality can be a treatment for lowering high blood pressure.

Cedars-Sinai recently launched the Sodium Healthy Living Project (So-Help), a feasibility study at Holman United Methodist Church in the West Adams district of Los Angeles, a mostly African-American neighborhood.

In collaboration with the California Black Nurses Association (CBN), the study is testing whether education and digitally enhanced programming using virtual reality devices can help lower blood pressure.

The program is Cedars-Sinai’s first community-based, interprofessional study for high blood pressure and the first study using virtual reality in the African-American community.

The So-Help program focuses on reducing people’s intake of sodium, a contributor to high blood pressure — the silent killer in the African-American community — said co-principal investigator Bernice Coleman, PhD, RN, ACNP-BC, a scientist in the Department of Nursing Research.

"High blood pressure doesn’t hurt until it’s too late and you are faced with kidney and heart problems," Coleman said. "The goal of the program is to teach people to understand nutrition labels, understand the role of salt in their diets, understand their numbers such as blood pressure and cholesterol, and learn to make healthier choices."

More than 40 percent of African-Americans have high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association.

As part of the program, the 60 participants worked in group sessions and received Fitbits, digital blood pressure cuffs, the MyFitnessPal app and virtual reality goggles.

Program participants met once a week for 12 weeks at the church for an evening that included dinner, health education and data collection from their medical devices. The health education took a holistic approach, combining spiritual needs, nutritional best practices, exercise information and the latest in digital health.

In addition to the weekly meetings, the participants received twice-weekly calls at home from CBN nurses.

Rev. Kevin Sauls, the pastor of Holman United Methodist Church, is committed to a program that highlights the connection between health and faith.

"It is inconsistent to serve souls in the sanctuary and then kill their bodies in the fellowship hall," Sauls said. "To that end, they are changing what is served at the church social on Sundays to healthier fare."

The virtual reality content was created after a Cedars-Sinai team met with members of the church to determine which foods the members liked best. The team came up with 10 popular foods and included some specific to the African-American community, such as collard greens.

Principal investigator Brennan M. Spiegel, MD, director of Health Services Research, oversaw development of the virtual reality content, along with AppliedVR, one of the Cedars-Sinai Techstars accelerator companies.

"In the virtual reality program, parishioners can fly through their heart, brain, kidney and blood vessels in immersive 3-D to experience the damaging effects of salt on their body," Spiegel said. "They can also enter a kitchen where they view the salt content of culturally appropriate foods. Plus, they see healthier low-salt alternatives.

"After all that, the parishioners experience a mindful meditation while lying on a virtual beach, narrated by Sauls," he added. "They listen to his words of wisdom and internalize the lessons of So-Help."

The goal of the So-Help project is to expand to other Los Angeles churches, first in the African-American community and then to other groups with culturally tailored programs.

The Cedars-Sinai team included Bibiana Martinez, MPH; Jennifer Pamu, RD; Lianna Ansryan, MSN, CNS; Deborah Clegg, PhD; Aaron Frank, MD; and Spiegel.