VR training for healthcare workers on the front line and in the classroom

In this critical time, virtual simulations offer the next best thing to real patients, helping medical professionals and students sharpen their skills and learn new ones.

By Stephanie Walden — May 7, 2020

In Washington state, doctors who typically deal with elective surgeries turned to virtual reality (VR) to relearn emergency-response skills they haven’t practiced since medical school. In New York City, homebound nursing students watched online simulations to learn how to properly don personal protective equipment (PPE). 

All around the country, both budding and established healthcare professionals pivoted their studies and skills due to COVID-19 — and often, without physically setting foot in traditional classrooms or hospitals.

Cole Sandau, CEO of the VR medical training platform Health Scholars, says his company fielded near-constant requests from health workers seeking educational resources. “Our chief medical officer got a phone call from a colleague who is a rheumatologist,” Sandau recalls. “He said, ‘I haven’t been in a hospital since I finished my residency 25 years ago, and in a few weeks I have to be in an ICU.’”

To help healthcare professionals adapt to this surreal situation and the effects it will have on healthcare going forward, organizations are turning to new and innovative training environments fueled by VR. From training doctors for unfamiliar fieldwork to helping nursing students continue their studies, here are four ways in which companies are helping the medical community learn and train during the crisis and beyond.


An Enduvo lesson about the COVID-19 molecule in VR.

Supporting surge providers

The World Health Organization estimates there’s currently a global shortage of 6 million nurses. Many cities also experienced a shortage of physicians who can treat COVID-19 patients because of varying skill sets and the spread of the infection among healthcare workers themselves. Specialists in other areas and even retired physicians were called in to fill the gap. 

VR offers a relatively low-risk environment where healthcare professionals can learn or relearn critical skills. “In the six months leading up to the crisis, we were already seeing increased interest in VR to deliver patient information and for surgical planning,” says Mary Kate Mahoney, HP’s global lead for virtual reality in healthcare. “Now, we’re hearing ‘We need to educate in a new way.’”

Mahoney says that to help meet the needs on the ground, HP works with partners to develop complete training solutions that work on a variety of platforms, getting crucial education where it’s needed most. 

“Even for people who work in the ER, now there’s a need to reorient how they perceive what’s going on around them and how they deliver care,” Mahoney says. “COVID-19 is just not the same as what anyone is used to seeing.”

VR is an apt mechanism for practicing the complex and life-saving skills that are in high demand right now. In response to the current crisis, Health Scholars developed a program that helps providers train for advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) scenarios — when patients go into cardiac arrest, which is often associated with severe COVID-19 infections.

“It’s so immersive, it really creates the entirety of the environment,” says Sandau, who says that Health Scholars has invested heavily in natural language processing (NLP). “Not only do we use VR to process visuals and sound, but with NLP, we also virtualize speech. You’re not using hand controllers; you’re actually telling people what to do — and they do it.”

To get training materials into the hands of providers as quickly as possible, Health Scholars has made its programming accessible on desktop PCs. Users get basically the same technical experience as they would in VR, but they can access the materials from home, without any special equipment. They can complete exercises as many times as they need to feel comfortable and proficient.

“Even for people who work in the ER, now there’s a need to reorient how they perceive what’s going on around them and how they deliver care.”

—MaryKate Mahoney, global lead for VR healthcare, HP

One system Health Scholars works with on the East Coast has activated every clinical provider they have into emergency roles. “They’ve written to us to say they would have had no idea how to do [these trainings] without our software,” says Sandau.

Simulating the real thing for the next wave of nurses

When New York went on lockdown, the Helene Fuld Health Trust Simulation Center at Columbia University’s School of Nursing had to temporarily shut its doors to students. The center, which includes mock hospital rooms complete with “human patient simulators” — robotic mannequins that mimic the patient during health scenarios like giving birth or having a heart attack — will remain closed through the summer.

But with demand for critical care nurses higher than ever, it’s imperative that students are able to continue their coursework, even if standard practices like shadowing working professionals in a hospital are impossible. To adapt to the times, the center has rapidly rolled out online programming to keep students’ educations moving along. Professors are now broadcasting live-streamed simulations and using screen-based simulation programs such as Shadow Health, Aquifer, and Oxford Health to provide interactive course materials, including lessons related to COVID-19 response.

“We’re doing virtual simulation classes on applying and removing PPE,” says Kellie Bryant, executive director of simulation and assistant professor of nursing at the center. 

Bryant notes that simulation is an effective format for training in a relatively low-risk environment, and research backs her up: A study by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing found that curriculums with up to 50% simulation were just as effective as those held exclusively in traditional labs, hospitals, and clinics. 

Adapting surgical training programs for the current need

For medical and nursing students eager to put newly learned skills to use, the need to clear final educational hurdles like clinicals is pressing — but many find themselves in limbo as hospitals are pausing student training. For prospective surgical technologists and perioperative nurses who work alongside surgeons in operating rooms, the majority of clinical training has been put on hold because so many surgeries, elective and other non-pressing, have been postponed or canceled as hospitals are dealing with the overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases. 

courtesy of hp

VR offers a relatively low-risk environment where healthcare professionals can learn or relearn critical skills.

“You’ve got all of these instructors that are in a lurch, because they’re meant to have clinical placements where they job shadow, but they have to transition to online learning,” Angela Robert, the CEO and co-founder of PeriopSim, a VR training platform for perioperative nurses and surgical technologists. “PeriopSim lets learners get experience when real opportunities are in short supply.” 

PeriopSim walks users through live videos of surgeries in realistic, 3D environments. Through VR, it helps teach intricacies like how to maintain a sterile field in an operating room, anticipating what the surgeon will do, or how to properly handle surgical instruments. Robert also notes that there’s potential for the platform to be focused on addressing pressing needs and shifting priorities.

For example, some surgeries — like those in response to cardiac emergencies — cannot be delayed, even if the operating room is short-staffed. In these cases, PeriopSim has potential to help train healthcare workers to fill in where necessary.

Delivering immersive, on-demand learning as the crisis evolves

As healthcare professionals learn new information and techniques in the field, sharing that information quickly and broadly becomes vital to advancing the crisis response. 

But historically, creating and distributing virtual reality content has required expertise — and time. 

Enduvo, a platform connects learners with experts through an immersive content development and delivery system and makes it accessible to even non-technical users who lack coding skills. Instructors record and upload content to private or public workspaces, and learners can access short lessons anytime on VR headsets, tablets, or screens. Enduvo’s accessibility and user-friendliness make it particularly useful in the context of a rapidly escalating scenario like COVID-19. “People learn best when they can actively engage with a lesson,” says Joan Spindel, Enduvo’s chief marketing officer. “This can be especially valuable for a situation where healthcare workers need to learn something on the job like how to use or perform a safety check on a ventilator.”

Mahoney says using existing VR technology to meet these urgent needs not only provides critical support for healthcare workers dealing with the crisis, but it also has implications for the future of how medical professionals quickly and efficiently train. 

“There’s a huge opportunity for VR to play a more active role in meeting specific needs and challenges practitioners face,” she says. “This will only grow as more people learn what they can do with it.”  


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