Using Virtual Reality to Train Interdisciplinary Teams of Healthcare Students

A recent study from Tufts University School of Medicine researchers has found that virtual reality (VR) simulations may be powerful in educating interdisciplinary medical teams. This emulated environment allows students from different medical professions to gain knowledge of other jobs in the healthcare environment and practice their collaborative care skills. This work was published online in the Journal of Interprofessional Care.

Focusing on the needs and overall life quality of patients with serious illnesses, palliative care requires a diverse team of healthcare specialists. These teams consist of physicians, nurses and nurse practitioners, social workers, and other staff to improve the patient outcome as much as possible.

The goal of medical interprofessional education (IPE) is to take healthcare students from different professions and hone their ability to work with one another. It can often be difficult to get these students all in the same room to work together, being that they take part in different programs with unique schedules and locations. To address this discrepancy, these Tufts researchers evaluated how a virtual education environment could promote IPE in palliative care, which focuses on reducing the symptoms of severe illness and requires interdisciplinary attention.

“IPE is an incredibly valuable experience for health professions students to have, and collaborative team-based palliative care has been shown to have a real impact on improving quality of life and patient care while lowering healthcare costs,” explained the study’s first and corresponding author Amy L. Lee, an assistant professor of family medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine. “Interprofessional learning is a crucial component for health professions training, but it’s often easier said than done. Challenges aligning students’ schedules to physically meet and work together are the most-commonly cited obstacle. Communication in real-time via a virtual setting might help address this problem.”

Background of the Tufts University Study

In their work, the researchers made an IPE experience for palliative care that could be simulated via the VR system Second Life. The study included 35 graduate healthcare students who took two-hour training sessions to become acquainted with the VR system. These students then formed groups of three to six, consisting of different occupations in different locations. The healthcare positions included in the study were medical, nursing, nutrition, physical therapy, and social work.

Each team went through three activities in the VR simulation while controlling their virtual avatar. The first, a scavenger hunt, involved communication through audio and group-text to move as a team to various locations in the room. This served as an orientation tool, allowing the team to get used to working together in the simulation.

The next activity was in an exam room, where a conversation with a patient and their family member about palliative care and symptom control took place. In this simulation, the team interacted with the patient and their sister through live audio but could continue to privately message one another through the group text. The scientistsvirtual reality who created the VR simulation added a representation of the patient’s experience as well to allow the team to empathize with them. The last activity involved a debriefing on the VR experience.

Surveys were given to the students before and after the simulation to analyze how effective the tool was in promoting IPE. The students also provided written reflections and photos of their personal experiences.

Meaningful Results

The Tufts research team found that the VR tool was both convenient and comfortable for students to use and that it improved their perceived value of other healthcare professionals. The students also claimed that the experience helped them appreciate the patient’s symptoms, reporting an increased sense of empathy in the post-session survey. Furthermore, this simulation allowed the users to practice their skills without the worry of harming the patient or making mistakes.

Some students did report confusion with the VR platform and claimed that the lack of in-person communication was a detriment, however, some students were interested in continuing IPE training with their team after the study (whether through VR or real life).

“Students came away from this study with a number of important lessons, and we as educators also learned something about teaching team skills in a virtual environment,” said Lee. “While more studies are needed to understand the best ways to integrate this type of learning experience into degree program curricula, the virtual environment opens up a new possibility for removing some of the barriers to collaborative patient care.”