Could virtual reality become an essential tool for healthcare education?

The technology behind virtual reality is rapidly advancing, allowing developers to create entire 3D hospitals for training purposes. In this article, Ben Hargreaves looks at how VR headsets are being used to better educate both healthcare professionals and the general public.

Digital healthcare solutions are being talked about with increasing frequency. Due to the pandemic, more people than ever had to turn to digital healthcare to achieve basic activities, such as speaking with a doctor or booking a visit with a healthcare professional. It is, therefore, quite simple for most to imagine what most digital health solutions look like and how they can fit into everyday life to ensure good health.

However, with virtual reality (VR), one element of the broader digital health ecosystem, this act of placing a technology and its use within healthcare becomes trickier. How does being able to layer a virtual reality alongside everyday life lead to advantages for the health of the individual and for the healthcare system? One of the key advantages of VR could be its ability to educate.

The potential for VR technology as an educational tool centres on its ability to create a virtual world that can closely mimic real-world settings. Using just a headset, the user can be placed into a learning environment where they can perform tasks safely without risk, or they can be provided with a more engaging learning environment. Practical examples of this include healthcare professionals using VR to learn various medical procedures or for the technology to be used to teach broader society about public health issues, such as the importance of vaccination.

The training challenge

According to the World Health Organization, the world will need more than 40 million new doctors, nurses, frontline healthcare workers, and various other healthcare professionals by 2030. This equates to approximately doubling the current medical workforce. The major challenge facing getting the individuals needed to be ready for work is ensuring that the current training model efficiently trains the number of staff required. Research found that healthcare CEOs identified the availability of skilled staff as one of their top five key risks.

The prospect of VR to supplement existing training models could offer advantages that address the issue of maintaining and growing a sufficient medical workforce. Though the technology is in its relative infancy, a number of studies have looked into the potential for VR training to improve healthcare staff’s performance or confidence in the real world.

In reality

In a broad study, an early scoping review on a number of research articles conducted into VR technology’s use in healthcare revealed that 87% of studies in people trained through VR showed higher accuracy in medical practice. To look into more specific examples, one particular study examined VR’s use for training in tracheostomy care skills, compared to regular text-based modules. The results found that those trained with VR self-reported higher levels of self-efficacy, including familiarity and confidence, whilst also showing reduced anxiety about tracheostomy-related knowledge and care skills. When it came to testing written and hands-on tracheostomy care skills, there was a ‘significant trend’ of improvement among those who had used VR simulation.

The positive feedback that has been generated by VR in training has also led to the creation of a ‘virtual hospital’ by Cardiff University. The project aims to create a virtual clinical placement for student healthcare practitioners, where they can apply textbook knowledge to real-life patients and scenarios. One of the core advantages noted by the project was that it allowed training to continue even when COVID-19 restrictions were at their height. Other advantages of the training platform include the ability to measure the performance of trainees and to provide an immersive learning experience with a 360-degree, 3D learning environment.

In the longer term, the organisations behind the project believe that the education of healthcare professionals, as well as patient care and experience, will be improved, the carbon footprint of education will also be reduced through the virtual environment, and that the overall educational package will distinguish those involved as at the forefront of medical education.

VR for real world education

Despite the obvious potential for medical staff training in a safe and secure environment, the scope for educating the general public on healthcare issues is also an area with a wide range of benefits. This could represent information specific to a particular patient, such as providing further information about their existing medical treatment, or it could involve a broader effort to educate the public on a specific issue.

The latter prospect has become increasingly urgent as health literacy became a substantial talking point during the COVID-19 pandemic. When an individual’s health literacy on a given topic is poor, they become susceptible to misinformation. In the case of the pandemic, this resulted in vaccine hesitancy in some people, even when they were potentially at risk. To try to improve health literacy, one study turned to VR to engage individuals and improve understanding of community immunity, or herd immunity, as it is also known. The results found that after VR ‘treatment’, vaccination intention increased and was more effective than a comparative text-and-image treatment. When both ‘treatments’ were combined, the vaccination intention increased even further.

The more you know

In addition to being able to encourage vaccination and, therefore, potentially protect people from illness, there has been interest in using VR to help people who have already been diagnosed with a medical condition. With effective education, patients are able to better understand their diagnosis and then engage in shared decision-making with healthcare professionals. As a result, a study found that patients became “more enthusiastic about starting their treatment and adhering to their systemic therapy.”

This has not escaped the notice of pharmaceutical companies looking to educate patients on topics, with which they may not have the most health literacy. Spark Therapeutics developed a VR product, alongside a partner, to teach haemophilia patients about gene therapy. Rather than applying this broadly to all patients, the company targeted teenagers and young adults to provide more engaging content. In this example, the education took the form of an escape room-style game.

This is the major advantage of VR technology: the ability to create such a learning tool in virtual reality, when the prospect of carrying out the same work in the real world would be extremely challenging and expensive. Due to the creative nature of the tool, the potential for VR is essentially limited only to the imagination of its application within the medical world. As VR tools extend into approved medical treatments, familiarity with the technology is only set to grow. The next step for wider use could simply be determining how to scale it up, so that access can meet the varied use cases the technology possesses.