VR allowing medical students to see and learn through patients’ eyes

KU School of Medicine - Wichita got the technology last year, and one of the main lessons it teaches is empathy.
Published: May. 30, 2021 at 10:58 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - To learn about the patient experience, medical students often spend their studies observing the exam room or poring over books.

Through immersive virtual reality, some KU School of Medicine - Wichita students are being taught what happens to people with different conditions and the care it requires.

“It actually seemed a little more real than I thought it would be when I first put it on,” said third-year medical student Norelia Ordonez-Castillo.

Norelia Ordonez-Castillo and Andrew Regoli are among the medical students learning by being transported into the lives of people they will one day treat.

“Learning to empathize with the patient experience of what it really is like to have these diseases and some of the side effects that come with them,” said Regoli, a third-year medical student.

Ordonez-Castillo said, “I think just being in the experience they’re having, it makes more sense as to why they don’t know what day it is and they don’t understand who that person is when they walk in cause I didn’t know who they were either.”

Assistant Professor at KU School of Medicine - Wichita Department of Internal Medicine Tiffany Schwasinger-Schmidt, M.D., Ph.D. was able to bring this technology to the school a year ago using a grant.

“One of the things we often struggle in being able to educate our students on is really seeing the other side of medicine,” said Dr. Schwasinger-Schmidt. “What is that experience like for patients or for family members that are taking care of patients. It’s easy for us as instructors to teach them about all the finite things with disease and how we treat it, but they never get to experience it.”

Embodied Labs develop the VR program. The wearer experiences five to 10-minute stories where they become the patient.

There’s one about Beatriz as she progresses through the different stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.

“It starts out with this patient who is a school teacher, so what is it like to be teaching school. Then it kind of jumps and fast forwards to now they have a grandchild and then suddenly the grandchild is grown. Seeing those kinds of skips in time, which is similar to what a lot of Alzheimer’s patients experience with memory loss.” Dr. Schwasinger-Schmidt said, “There’s just these gap in time, but also finding some of those subtle things like how words can get jumbled up in their brain or what’s it like for a family to talk about your goals of care and what that looks like for you while you’re sitting in the room but not necessarily engaging with you because your family is not sure what you’re understanding.

In another module, they embody Dima suffering from Lewy Body Dementia and Parkinson’s Disease. There are also stories to share the experience of people with visual and auditory hallucinations, end-of-life care and transgender healthcare.

“The nice thing about this technology is they’re working with physicians and families around the country to develop new modules every day, so this could be used in medical education but also in community settings,” Dr. Schwasinger-Schmidt said.

By stepping into the lives of these patients, spending time with them, and feeling their confusion, frustrations, and pain, Dr. Schwasinger-Schmidt said one of the main lessons students can learn is empathy.

“Being able to understand, listen to patients, see where they’re coming from, that’s probably the most important aspect of medical care, and what we see over time, unfortunately, that can sometimes be lost for people,” Dr. Schwasinger-Schmidt said. “Practicing physicians with all the pressures we’re under, seeing lots of patients, having to make these critical decisions day in and day out and just the hours and the stress. It can really wear on people. We’re seeing more and more physician burnout, and empathy is one thing that we know goes early with burnout.”

Building the permanence of this capacity to feel and understand what others are facing goes a long way in enhancing patients’ care.

“We really want to be able to address that with our students and kind of help them understand how that can change but really be cognizant of it.” Dr. Schwasinger-Schmidt said, “Sometimes the best care I can provide to my patients is really just by listening to them, hearing them and helping them through their journey.”

How to go about talking with patients and their families is a common takeaway for medical students after this VR experience.

“I wasn’t taking into account how much sensitivity there can be with all the noise and how disorienting that was, so maybe just trying to make the place a little quieter, maybe the machines and beeping, and all of that doesn’t help the patient either,” said Ordonez-Castillo.

Regoli said, “Empathize with specific symptoms that patients are sensing. So, for example, in one, it was very loud and hard for the patient to focus if there was more than one sound and maybe cutting down on sound interference when you’re doing a patient interview.”

That’s the kind of difference Dr. Schwasinger-Schmidt wanted this technology to have. She said it has changed how she goes about teaching as well.

“I think it really does change the way they look at things because they understand something so much more intimately in seeing this, so they’re better able to relate to patients and understand that maybe they can’t communicate clearly in the office,” Dr. Schwasinger-Schmidt.

Seeing how this VR technology is aiding medical students’ learning and development of empathy and how that correlates to patients’ care is one of the next steps. Dr. Schwasinger-Schmidt said the plan in the near future is to collaborate with ComfortCare Homes in Wichita, a long-term memory care service, for a study.

“Where we can have our students go into these individual houses and see what it is like for the patients, interact with them, and be able to understand what kind of impact this educational intervention is having on the care that they’re providing patients.” She said, “Unfortunately, the pandemic hit, so we haven’t been able to make that firm partnership yet just because we want to keep people safe.”

For medical students, having access to this technology also expands the possibilities.

“Opens up some of the really hard-to-get experiences and kind of make them standard so everyone will have access to them, maybe a surgery that no one else could see that’s very rare.” Regoli said, “If you record it and do it in virtual reality, maybe a lot more people would have that experience.”

It is experience gained by getting a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes.

Dr. Schwasinger-Schmidt said, “Any way we can really help students and help train these future doctors, we’re so excited to be a part of it.”

Dr. Schwasinger-Schmidt said one of the goals is to allow the public to experience this immersive VR by partnering with organizations bringing awareness to conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to make it available at fundraising walks and other events.

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