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Using Virtual Reality to Get Inside an Ailing Person’s World

VR can stoke empathy among caregivers and health care workers


Part of the Aging and Innovation Special Report

More than 80 years ago, George Orwell wrote his first book, a memoir called Down And Out in Paris and London. It chronicled his life on the margins of society where he lived in poverty in these two cities by adopting the life of a tramp — or in modern terms, an indigent man. Written as an investigative exploration, Orwell immersed himself in a world he did not know so he could write authentically about an experience other writers had only observed.

Flash forward to today where more than 42 million Americans caring for a loved one over age 50 are also living on the margins — as an overwhelmed, overlooked part of our society. Family caregivers and their charges often feel all alone. Many believe that those who are not sick or have not provided care for an ailing or frail parent, spouse or other loved one, really cannot relate to the emotional roller coaster that has become their life.

Technology is about to change this lack of understanding.

Entering the World of Another

In 2016, one of the biggest trends in technology was the consumer realization of virtual reality (VR) — the ability to become immersed in another world. Soon, VR may not only create empathy for family caregivers and their loved ones but also a better health care system.

The applications for VR are endless. The United Nations has created a virtual reality experience of virtually dropping participants into a Syrian refugee camp. Google used VR to have wounded veterans who could not participate in Veteran’s Day parades experience these events in real-time from their homes. And a major pharmaceutical company uses VR to show how a mother now understands how her migraine-suffering daughter feels.

This type of app is not only informative for family and friends but vital for health care professionals as well.

— Dr. Leslie Saxon, University of Southern California

In fact, one of the biggest opportunities for virtual reality is in health and medicine, and especially in how to understand the issues of an aging population and those who care for them.

A Virtual Reality App About Aging

Imagine becoming a 74-year-old African American man with high frequency hearing loss and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), common health issues as we age. This is exactly what Embodied Labs, a Chicago-based start-up created by four Millennials, did with their Alfred Lab app.

The app won the top prize last year in the University of Southern California’s Center for Body Computing (CBC) annual VR hackathon competition. Judges were impressed with the app’s thoroughly informative look at a day in the life of “Alfred,” including interaction with his doctor, his family and others. (Disclosure: Sherri Snelling works for Keck Medicine of USC where the center is located.)

The power of being able to experience exactly what Alfred does is now made real for those who have only observed, studied or read about these conditions. For instance, as a viewer wears the virtual reality goggles, his or her eyesight is blighted by a dark spot in the middle of the visual field simulating AMD. The visual impairment makes eye contact, communication and simple tasks difficult.

“The Embodied Labs team took us on the type of experiential ride that makes VR the ultimate medical empathy machine,” said Dr. Leslie Saxon, founder and executive director of the USC CBC. “This type of app is not only informative for family and friends but vital for health care professionals as well. It will change how we treat patients by providing an immersive experience that creates emotional intelligence and ultimately more compassionate care.”

See students using the app in the video below.

Educating Health Care Workers for an Aging America

The goal of Embodied Labs was to create the Alfred Lab Project not as a consumer VR app but to train and educate health care professionals and medical students about aging issues. (Its site lets people sign up for a demo.) This is an important goal considering the looming physician shortage to treat our aging population.

By 2030, one in five Americans will be eligible for Medicare and the U.S. Census Bureau reports the numbers of those over 65 will be double what they were in 2012. The American Geriatrics Society projects 17,000 geriatricians will be needed to care for 12 million older Americans, yet today we only have 7,500 certified geriatricians and fewer medical students choosing internal medicine and geriatrics.

“VR adds an element of medical education that is different,” says Carrie Shaw, co-founder and CEO of Embodied Labs. “It’s not just learning about a disease. VR puts you in this world and that creates empathy, which has been shown to lead to better communication skills and professionalism for the health care workforce.”

Medical students at the University of Illinois College of Medicine who are working with Embodied Labs on the Alfred Lab found that the black spot that represents AMD made them physically tired. That made them feel more empathetic with a patient who has to struggle with declining eyesight and activities of daily living.

A Background in Caregiving

Shaw, a medical illustrator with a master’s degree in biomedical visualization, also understands caregiving. At age 19, she became a caregiver for her mother, along with her sister, Erin Washington, an educator who is the curriculum architect for Embodied Labs and oversees the medical education partner development efforts.

Their mother was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Their experience made Shaw and Washington empathetic to the plight of family caregivers, but also enlightened them about how health care professionals understand aging issues but have not “experienced” them personally.

After joining forces with Embodied Labs’ other key players, Creative Director Ryan Lebar and Tom Leahy on technology, Shaw and Washington were ready to make VR a springboard for their new venture.

What is essential to the success of Embodied Labs is not just delivering on the technology and what the disease or disorder is about. It’s delivering the best storytelling elements that engage the viewer. To do that, Ryan Lebar, a former filmmaker and theater director, helps craft the narrative for maximum empathetic impact.

“If you watch a play, a film or a TV show you experience the story as a viewer but miss actually experiencing what the actor is experiencing. And that is the magic of VR and 360-degree filming,” Lebar says. “It truly gives you a new perspective on life when you are a participant and not just a passive viewer.”

VR Coming to a Headset Near You

While developers are hard at work creating and refining VR apps, caregivers and others also need a special headset to view the experience. Today, virtual reality headsets range in cost from $15 for Google Cardboard to $600 to $800 for Oculus Rift. With more than 165,000 medical apps on the market, VR apps are quickly becoming the new trend.

Although VR is still in its infancy, scientists like Frans de Waal have created studies showing that we are social animals who have a natural tendency to care for each other. Whether VR can make us more empathetic — as professional or family caregivers — remains to be seen. But VR and caregiving are here to stay.

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Sherri Snelling
By Sherri Snelling
Sherri Snelling, executive director at Keck Medicine of USC and author of A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance “self-care” while caring for a loved one. She was named #4 on the Top 10 Alzheimer’s Influencers list by Sharecare, the health and wellness web site founded by Dr. Oz.@sherrisnelling

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