Dr. Keith Mortman, Director of Thoracic Surgery at the George Washington University Hospital, used virtual reality tools to assess the lungs of a  COVID-19 patient.

Oct 01 2020

How VR in Healthcare Delivers Pandemic Education and Outreach

Virtual reality solutions give medical schools and healthcare organizations a new way to teach clinicians, patients and the public.

When George Washington University Hospital admitted its first COVID-19 patient in March, clinicians turned to virtual reality to help them better understand what the disease was doing to the patient’s lungs.

The organization already relied on VR software and Oculus headsets in other instances to give patients a visual representation of their own conditions. But with the coronavirus presenting new and complex challenges, leaders saw an opportunity to use the tools to get a better grasp on the disease themselves.

“As clinicians, it gave us a better look at the disease radiographically,” says Dr. Keith Mortman, director of thoracic surgery at GW Hospital in Washington, D.C. “Now, we can look at it from every different angle.”

The approach, he added, allowed teams to quantify the damage in precise detail. “In this particular patient, 23 percent of his lungs were impacted by COVID,” he says.

Once clinicians assessed the virtual images to further guide care delivery, they made them public to send a message about the disease’s severe physical toll.

The project underscores the growing versatility of VR solutions in medicine. Although applications such as surgical training remain critical — especially as classrooms and clinical spaces remain affected by the pandemic — the technology is gaining traction as an educational tool at medical schools and healthcare organizations.

Creative uses of VR tend to offer more than just immersive versions of anatomy textbooks, says Dr. Warren Wiechmann, associate dean of clinical science education and educational technology at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine.

“I really think that what is going to make VR stick is the ability to do things you couldn’t normally do in other modalities,” Wiechmann says. “I like this idea of putting yourself in scenarios you normally couldn’t be in to increase training and increase exposure.”

Shifting the Focus to Medical Education

At GW Hospital, clinicians and researchers have reconfigured the scans of 27 COVID-19 patients in virtual reality and looked at them alongside lab work. They found a correlation between lung damage and certain elevated lab values, which were also correlated with patient outcomes.

Although this is a clinical and research use case, it demonstrates the potential for the technology to accelerate learning, Mortman says.

“This has everything to do with medical education,” he says. “It’s a tool I’ve used primarily for patient education, and then we’ve adapted it for this new use. This raises a question: What can we learn from this, just by using the technology for a different reason?”

The uses are many. At the University of Washington in Seattle, clinicians and researchers have deployed VR to teach mindfulness strategies to patients. Wearing VR headsets, patients can imagine themselves floating down a river, and they’re given instructions about where to train their focus.

Such immersion, says Hunter Hoffman, director of the VR Analgesia Research Center at the university’s Human Photonics Lab, makes it easier for patients to stay focused — a value that could translate to many facets of a lab or classroom.

“The nice thing about VR is that you’ve already captured the user’s attention,” Hoffman says. “Virtual reality is very attention-grabbing, and I think it lends itself to medical training. Attention and memory are closely related.”

On the flip side, the technology has potential to educate patients and reduce anxiety before major procedures. A VR app, Hoffman notes, could allow users to virtually experience preparations for the surgical process, offering a particular benefit to individuals who have attention deficit disorders or anxiety.

Preparing Medical Staff for the Proper Application of PPE

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles has maintained a robust simulation program for a decade. Clinicians wear VR headsets from vendors such as Oculus and HTC to engage in a variety of learning activities.

More recently, the hospital has relied on less expensive headsets that work with clinicians’ smartphones so nurses and doctors can learn from home without having to share devices.

And the latest lessons have been critical: Physicians and nurses use VR modules to learn best practices for the use of personal protective equipment, an education that’s more nuanced than it might seem.

“If you touch one wrong thing, you risk infecting others in the hospital with COVID,” says Margo Minissian, executive director for nursing education at Cedars-Sinai. “It sounds elementary until you have to take it off and not contaminate yourself or anyone else.”

MORE FROM HEALTHTECH: Learn how VR improves the pediatric care experience.

The VR modules have prepared staffers for in-person training upon their arrival at the hospital, adds Russell Metcalfe-Smith, associate director of the Cedars-Sinai Women’s Guild Simulation Center. “There are specific steps for how to apply PPE — and, of course, how to remove it safely.”

The measures aren’t just reactionary. With an eye on new hurdles ahead, Cedars-Sinai has sent VR goggles home with a new cohort of graduating nurses to provide remote training during their residencies. “We need this technology to continue their education,” Minissian says. “Otherwise, we run the risk of a nursing shortage in the coming years.”

Cedars-Sinai leaders anticipate that COVID-19 will continue to spark wider adoption of VR in healthcare education. “Now that we are having to use the technology more, people are seeing the benefits of it,” says Metcalfe-Smith.

Adds Minissian, “Absolutely, I think this is our new wave.”

Photography by Ryan Donnell

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