Two new integrative health programs at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital are helping young patients heal by bringing them closer to nature.
In 2017, the hospital’s Pediatric Integrative Health program began using nature-based therapy and virtual reality therapy to comfort chronic pancreatitis patients who had undergone a total pancreatectomy and islet auto-transplant (TP-IAT). Chronic pancreatitis is a rare, painful condition caused by inflammation of the pancreas. Severe cases may be life-threatening and are sometimes treated by a TP-IAT, a surgical procedure that involves the removal of the patient’s pancreas.
Nature-based therapies bring kids outside to interact with nature while virtual reality therapy uses technology to help them experience nature from within the hospital.
“We picked TP-IAT patients because they usually have a history of chronic pain, multiple hospitalizations and have not been able to be outside in nature as much as they would have liked,” said Pediatrician Lynn Gershan, MD, medical director of the Integrative Health Program at the children’s hospital. “We noticed that in the past, some of these patients were comforted by healing and nature sounds, their own pets or by watching videos of nature. It was a ‘natural attraction’ that seemed to have a positive effect.”
Jean Larson, PhD, leads a nature-based therapeutic program that is the product of a partnership between the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing and the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. She says the healing effect of nature is well-documented in research. Nature-based therapy has been shown to decrease stress, increase immune function and improve cognition.
“Nature-based therapy exposes patients to nature to help them heal,” Larson said. “There’s strong evidence demonstrating how a connection to nature is essential to health and wellbeing.”
Nature-based therapy isn’t always accessible for patients with compromised immune systems, limited mobility or other medical issues that prevent them from leaving the hospital. In those instances, virtual reality can provide “the next best thing.”
Virtual reality technology in use at the hospital allows patients to experience amazing landscapes and new environments—all from their hospital room. Patients can watch bears playing in a forest, sit on a beach and listen to the waves or even explore faraway canyons.
“We would love for every child who is old enough to have the opportunity to experience nature outside and in all its forms,” Gershan said. “If that’s not possible, virtual reality allows them to escape virtually into nature for a while.”
These new therapies are among the many tools the Pediatric Integrative Health program uses to help young patients. Integrative health providers range from medical doctors to massage therapists and energy therapists. The services they can provide include everything from acupuncture and creative arts therapy to yoga and meditation.
“Integrative health and wellbeing puts the patient at the center of the care and addresses the full range of physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual and environmental influences that affect a person's health and healing,” Gershan said.