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Dr. Jeffrey Curtis wants to use virtual reality to help patients with rheumatoid arthritis experience how the disease may worsen over time in the future to improve shared decision making about their treatment choices in the present.

While virtual reality might seem to be limited to only fun and games, UAB rheumatologist Dr. Jeffrey Curtis wants to harness virtual reality to help patients understand how rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, progresses over time. He believes the virtual experience can help patients realize the importance of treating their disease earlier and more appropriately, to prevent long-term joint damage and disability.

RA is a progressive inflammatory disease of the joints that causes pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function, resulting in significant reductions in quality of life as the disease advances. The American College of Rheumatology currently recommends a proactive approach to treatment—”treat to target”—with remission as the desired outcome. These treatments usually involve taking effective immunomodulatory or immunosuppressive medications. However, despite national guidelines recommending their use, these medications may provoke safety concerns in some patients.

Actively engaging patients in shared decision making this approach about their treatment requires effective patient education. To help, Curtis is working with a team of investigators from Auburn University to explore virtual reality, or VR, as a novel solution. Together, they aim to develop a proof-of-concept VR application that can be paired with a haptic suit and gloves to give patients the sensations of flexibility, grip, and mobility that can mirror the future progression of RA.

The study is one of many projects supported by UAB’s BIG DATA, a NIAMS-funded P30 center to advance innovative research and technology tools to transform healthcare and improve outcomes for patients diagnosed with rheumatologic, musculoskeletal, and skin diseases. The VR project is led by Dr. Kimberly Garza, Associate Professor in the Harrison School of Pharmacy’s Department of Health Outcomes Research and Policy at Auburn Universityand one of the P30 researchers.

“An immersive experience using VR can potentially enhance the effects of interventions to communicate risk of disease progression by increasing empathy for one’s future self, thereby motivating engagement in behaviors to promote health and prevent disease progression,” says Garza. “By creating a sense of actually being there, a sense that events in VR are actually happening, and a sense that the body of a virtual avatar is actually one’s own body, VR can simulate realistic scenarios allowing the user to experience ‘first-hand’ the effects of RA disease progression on quality of life.”

Others on the research team include Gary Hawkins (Auburn University Libraries), Dr. Cheryl Seals (College of Engineering), Dr. Chad Rose (College of Engineering), and Dr. Chris Loughnane (Auburn University Libraries).