Face of InnoVAtion is a regular series from the VHA Innovation Ecosystem (VHA IE) focusing on VA employees who are working to change and save Veteran lives through innovation. This month, meet Christopher A. Fowler, Ph.D., research health science specialist at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.
Dr. Christopher Fowler thought virtual reality (VR) was a dead technology. His experience in the 90s as a retail clerk in a video game store had given him the impression that VR was just an expensive and impractical gimmick. He never thought that his work with Veterans would bring him back to it. However, after receiving his doctorate in clinical psychology – while interning and completing a three-year research fellowship at VA and eventually becoming a VA employee – he found VR unexpectedly thrust back into his lap, quite literally.
“What excites me about innovation would probably have to do with my VR experience,” said Dr. Fowler. “I was in a meeting with our academic partners at the University of South Florida’s Advanced Visualization Center. Dr. Sandra Winkler, my mentor, was talking to the center director Howard Kaplan, and one of his employees handed me a Samsung Gear VR headset with a space launch application. Even though I was sitting right next to Dr. Winkler, I could not tell you a single word she or Mr. Kaplan said during their entire conversation. I was completely present within the VR experience. Because of this, I really knew there was something to this technology which I had previously perceived as ‘dead.’”
Thanks to this chance encounter and his continued work with Veterans, Dr. Fowler became interested in the applications of VR in the rehabilitation of the Veterans he cared for. He now has two projects focused on how VR can work as an adjunctive therapy for Veterans with chronic pain. The first is a toolkit of VR pain self-management apps to be used by Veterans with chronic pain during cognitive-behavioral therapy. The second is examining the feasibility of VR for inpatient post-stroke rehabilitation. At first, his work seemed isolated, but soon he discovered that innovation is thriving through grassroots efforts and VHA IE.
The XR Network, spearheaded by VHA IE’s Care & Transformational Initiatives (CTI) portfolio, enables Veterans nationwide to receive XR sessions to treat challenges like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. Veterans who choose to experience XR might spend 30 minutes walking through a peaceful forest, listening to the soft sounds of waves on the beach, or collecting coins in an engaging memory game.
Dr. Fowler is not only involved in CTI’s XR Network, but is testing a new product to sanitize VR equipment, through the VHA Innovators Network Greenhouse Initiative. He will participate in a two-month user experience test of a newly design UV-C tessellated sanitization box to determine the new technology’s feasibility for use in the VR environment.
The future of Dr. Fowler’s work is the future of health care. “I hope that such positive examples of grassroots movements within VA can motivate people to feel that they can make a difference in such a large system,” Dr. Fowler said of the future of health care and innovation at VA.
Allison Amrhein is the director of operations for the VHA Innovators Network and communications lead for the VHA Innovation Ecosystem.