This dad builds virtual hospitals to help sick kids fight cancer fears

By Kitty Knowles 3 August 2017

Giving sick little ones a safe space to learn and play.

Visiting a hospital is never fun, but for kids it can be particularly traumatic.

Six years ago Dom Raban‘s 13-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer called Ewings Sarcoma.

Despite receiving fantastic clinical care, she received virtually no information about her diagnosis or treatment.

“What information there was, was directed at us as parents, which left my daughter feeling isolated and ignored,” Raban told The Memo.

Indeed, the ‘C’ word was mentioned was only mentioned when she was eventually sent for specialist treatment.

“Suddenly she was surrounded by kids who had lost their hair through chemotherapy and were walking around the ward carrying infusion pumps,” recalls Raban.

“She felt like she had entered the valley of death and nobody had bothered to tell her what to expect.”

Building virtual hospitals to help

Raban’s daughter is not alone in her experiences.

More than 1,700 kids in Britain are diagnosed with a children’s cancer each year, and too often a lack of health information leaves them confused and scared.

This is despite the fact that research shows that more information can reduce stress and anxiety and can even lead to better clinical outcomes.

Fortunately Raban, a Managing Director at the digital agency Corporation Pop, decided his company could make a difference.

He started building virtual hospitals – to help sick kids feel safe.

Two years ago his team start developing the Patient’s Virtual Guide (a temporary codename) – the world’s first healthcare app using augmented reality, gamification and artificial intelligence to improve a child’s understanding of their treatments.

“The most important aspect of PVG is putting information in the hands of children,” says Raban. “I want them to feel engaged, empowered and informed – and have fun at the same time.”

“Think of it as Pokémon Go meets The Sims.”

How it will work

The first thing a child does when they receive the app is customise their own 3D avatar. This artificially intelligent guide can then answer a child’s questions and explain treatments in a child-friendly way.

“It becomes their friend throughout their hospital journey,” says Raban.

Once they’ve created their guide, kids can explore hospital environments in 3D augmented reality and play with often frightening technology such as MRI scanners and heart-rate monitors.

They’re even able to play mini-games based around hospital experiences with other kids in their ward.

“The Guide can let them know about important dates such as when to expect their next visitor, when their favourite TV programme is on and the date of their next consultant appointment,” says Raban.

Bright futures

Backed by the NHS, Nominet Trust and Manchester Business Growth Hub – one final round of investment should allow PVG to become ready for launch next year.

“We’ve also had investment in-kind from our user-research partners, Sutherland Labs,” says Raban. “When Owen Daly-Jones, their CEO, heard the story about my daughter, he offered their user research services free of charge so this enabled us to carry out user testing of our prototypes with patients, parents and clinicians at Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital.”

It’s through this close work with academics and healthcare professionals like Royal Manchester’s Associate Clinical Head, Peter-Marc Fortune, that Raban hopes to show PVG positive impact on kids health.

We know that patient distress can make procedures more difficult, leading to more time consuming appointments and referrals.

But if we lay the foundations for a generation of patients to better self-manage their health, that has a positive impact on kids, parents, and the NHS budget and beyond.

“My goal is to have 1.5 million children using and benefitting from the app by the time I reach my next milestone birthday,” says Raban.

We hope his app will help sick kids in hospitals find a way to enjoy theirs.