Torbay Hospital first to use virtual reality technology to improve patient experience

The project uses dual GoPro cameras in a 3D configuration mounted in a head rig, positioned on the simulated patient.

Published: 7 April 2015

Torbay Hospital is adapting the latest techniques in virtual reality technology to help improve clinicians’ understanding of what it is like to be a patient.

Although virtual reality has recently been pioneered for use as a surgical training tool (France – August 2014), it is believed Torbay Hospital is the first to use it for ‘human factors’ training; which is all about understanding the effect that things such as communication, compassion, teamwork, equipment, and workspace, have on clinical performance and on the quality of experience a patient receives.

Nick Peres, who developed the project and is the Hospital’s lead for Learning Technologies, said: “Patients can sometimes be overwhelmed by what is happening around them and the PatientVR (virtual reality) concept is about placing doctors, nurses and other frontline staff in the patient’s shoes.”

“For some time, our clinical skills team has been using mannequins in staff training, and although the mannequins can blink, breath, bleed and speak, they cannot portray what the patient feels or sees. Virtual reality is big news currently in the gaming and entertainment industry and whilst studying for a PhD* I started to look at how we could use virtual reality to help represent the patient voice in medical education and training.”

The pilot film, about a make-believe patient who is experiencing chest pains, documents the patient’s journey from ambulance to Emergency Department and on to theatre. Using advanced recording and viewing technologies, incorporating two synchronized wide angle cameras on top of the patient’s head, really brings the scene to life and creates an emotional experience based on the feeling of distress experienced when strangers are taking control of your life.

Medical professionals can then watch this footage using a virtual reality headset (at Torbay Hospital they used the Oculus Rift DK2 model**). The stereoscopic 3D and wide field of view creates an immersive experience where the user is able to navigate the video left to right, forwards and backwards, replicating the patient’s own field of vision. Afterwards staff discuss the environment, the patient’s state of mind, staff actions and interactions, and how all of these could affect the patient experience.

The PatientVR project team, which also includes Innovation Lead, Darren Woodall, and Director of Education, Dr Matt Halkes, plans to film several different medical scenarios as well as non-medical ones (eg breaking bad news to patients and their families). Now that the cost of the technology has come down to an affordable level, it is a cost effective method of using technology in training.

Dr Kyle Stewart, Trust Medical Senior House Officer, added: “As a clinician on the front line, I can forget how my actions and words could be interpreted by patients. For the first time, virtual reality technology allows me to become the patient and feel what is like to be in their shoes. I immediately felt the emotions and concerns of being a patient in a pressured situation and began to appreciate how a clinician’s actions can affect the patient’s state of mind. PatientVR provides a unique opportunity for healthcare professionals to empathise with their patients and improve the patient experience.”

Tod Guest, Consultant in Intensive Care Medicine and Anaesthetics, said: “Doctors want to be empathetic and have good bedside manners. We all know that sometimes circumstances make this harder to achieve than we would wish. The reality of seeing life threatening illness every day can mean a patient’s vulnerable emotional state does not get our fullest attention. We must not forget about the importance of compassionate behaviour and putting our patients at the centre of the care we provide.”

“This virtual reality tool helps us to better understand how we can be more sensitive to the patient’s needs and their ability to understand the information we’re trying to give them. Their vulnerability and emotional state is really important, especially when they are suddenly taken ill with something serious and frightening.”

“I am really excited at the possibilities of using this tool and the immense potential it has for healthcare providers in all roles to reflect on the experience their patients are having.”

This is the beginning of an exciting journey for Torbay Hospital which may include using PatientVR to review and design environments from a patient perspective and preparing nervous patients by having trial runs. The eventual uses will be guided by evidence from the evaluation and feedback of the pilot film.

* Nick Peres’ PHD is in cinematic interfaces for simulated environments as part of Transtechnology Research.

** the plan is to buy another five headsets when the new Crescent Bay model is released.

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