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Houston VA virtual reality grant program

Dr. Mackenzie Shanahan works with a fellow trainee using virtual reality.

Dr. Mackenzie Shanahan, a postdoctoral fellow who specializes in the treatment of patients with chronic health conditions at the Houston VAMC, works with a fellow trainee using virtual reality.

By Cheryl Whitney
Tuesday, May 21, 2024

At the Michael E. DeBakey Medical Center in Houston, Texas, leaders are working to improve care for Veterans and employee well-being by expanding use of new medical technology.

In conjunction with a virtual reality (VR) fair the medical center held in December 2023, leaders opened a mini-grant program for clinical staff to apply to study virtual reality and how it can improve care for Veterans and employees.

In March 2024, 10 winners were announced, one of which included Mackenzie Shanahan, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow who specializes in the treatment of patients with chronic health conditions.

Working alongside her supervisor, Dr. Gina Evans, Shanahan’s project plans to enhance treatment of Veterans with irritable bowel syndrome by incorporating VR as a tool in the delivery of evidence-based, gut-brain psychotherapies.

“What we are finding is that Veterans really love using VR,” said Shanahan. “And by using VR, patients will be able to become more immersed in the practice of mindfulness and relaxation which can help increase their use of this practice, reduce pain and anxiety, improve quality of life, and increase satisfaction with health care services,” said Shanahan.

Shanahan, a graduate of Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis, selected the subject because irritable bowel syndrome impacts nearly 30% of Veterans and psychotherapy and therapy skills can improve these patients’ GI symptoms and pain.

“Very few psychologists specialize in the care of patients with GI conditions,” said Shanahan. “Our proposal hopes to address this gap in care so that patients with IBS might have more access to gut-brain focused psychological treatment and can more easily use skills like mindfulness and relaxation to improve their symptoms.”

Houston VAMC’s Associate Chief of Staff for Education, Dr. Angela Catic, says the mini-grant program will address staff well-being as well as many issues facing Veterans today.

“We are very excited by the impact this grant program is going to have on health care for Veterans,” said Catic. “We have a variety of projects in a lot of different clinical areas and are looking forward to our Veterans being able to engage with virtual reality and see the impact this has on pain levels, on headaches, and on their ability to engage in mindfulness and stress reduction.”

Catic says that it is not unusual for trainees to be involved in most of the educational, research, and quality improvement efforts throughout the facility and that Shanahan is a great fit for this grant program.

“Dr. Shanahan is a remarkable trainee,” said Catic. “It really speaks to her dedication to Veterans, her close work with her mentors, and really, her vision to use VR in the patient population that she cares for.”

For Shanahan, who has trained with VA for almost six years, working with Veterans is a gratifying experience. “I find working with Veterans to be both professionally and personally rewarding,” said Shanahan. “As the wife of a currently serving Army captain, I have a vested interest in the health of our Veterans. I am happy to be able to give back to Veterans through my research and delivery of clinical services.”

Catic says the results of the mini-grant program will continue to enhance treatment of Veterans at Houston’s VAMC as they look to build upon the program.

“We look forward to monitoring the outcomes of this grant program over the coming year and then look forward to expanding these projects in the future,” said Catic.

The mission of training future health professionals for VA and the nation, established more than 78 years ago, is one of VA’s four statutory missions and is overseen by the Office of Academic Affiliations. More than 120,000 health professions trainees in over 60 clinical disciplines train at VA each year as they care for Veterans.              



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