Using Virtual Reality to Improve Healthcare Delivery and Increase Patient Retention

April 22, 2019 / Brandon Tasset

Physician empathy has been shown to lead to better clinical outcomes for patients and reduced burnout for physicians. But it’s something that schools and facilities have struggled to effectively teach: how do you put a provider in the the shoes of a patient while also maintaining the separation necessary to provide appropriate care?

More and more schools and hospitals are looking to virtual reality, or VR, to teach medical providers empathy by giving them realistic insights into patients’ specific situations. At Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, residents train with Oculus VR goggles that simulate high-stakes pediatric events so that they can get comfortable making the right decisions even when adrenaline is running high. Oculus plans to expand this technology into 11 other institutions and healthcare providers.

For the past year, students at the University of California Irvine Medical School have used VR technology provided by Los Angeles-based Embodied Labs. Virtual simulations allow providers to experience what it’s like to have a disease or medical condition. The fully immersive simulations “put” the medical students into their patient’s body, allowing them to experience medical challenges firsthand. While patient testimonials still play a role in educating healthcare providers, the virtual environment gives providers a deeper understanding of the physical and emotional issues a patient is facing. This, in turn, creates empathy in the provider and trust by the patient. It also reduces the risk of error due to miscommunication.

Now, students at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine are using Embodied’s end-of-life experience to develop empathy for terminal patients. Because of its immersive capabilities, virtual reality experience is uniquely able to spark empathy in students who have never had a near-death experience themselves. Previous work with VR at the New England College of Medicine in the field of age-related medical issues showed that the practitioners’ empathy for patients increased as a result of the VR experiences.

In addition to end-of-life, Embodied also offers virtual experiences for Alzheimer’s disease and  macular degeneration. Each experience is specifically programmed to replicate the challenges faced by a patient with that condition; for example, the macular degeneration experience places a black spot in the eye of the viewer, who must then try to navigate an office visit and the filling out of patient forms. Embodied Labs’ website states that more experiences are in development.

Existing virtual reality capabilities are creating better experiences for patients and more compassionate providers. As more simulations are created and technologies improve, hospitals and healthcare providers will be able to humanize healthcare to an even greater extent.