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Caregiver VR: Using VR Technology to Improve Care for our Aging Population

While Virtual Reality is not considered a new technology, recent advances in hardware and software have made it a viable tool to accurately replicate real world scenarios and allow people to learn in a risk-free environment. As a result, many industries such as the healthcare industry, are adopting VR technology to train their professionals. Bethany Care Society, one of the largest Alberta-based long-term care operators is already seeing the benefits of the technology and are betting that it will revolutionize the future of training in their industry. In a recent interview with Steven Friesen, Executive Director of Research & Innovation, he explained that it was initially the site restrictions of their multiple locations at the start of the pandemic that first prompted the organization to consider VR as a viable option to train their care staff. In 2021, they received a grant to support their palliative care program with VR simulations across their 13 sites. They worked with Calgary-based Kaleidoscope XR to develop Caregiver VR, a training platform to facilitate soft skills training by allowing teachers/trainees to roleplay as caregivers and residents in front of a virtual classroom. Friesen explains that prior to the pandemic, there were already challenges around organizing classroom-based education sessions and that logistically, it was hard to manage having to take people off the floor during busy times to allow them to physically attend these sessions. VR has allowed staff the flexibility to do these sessions from home, without compromising the “engagement” aspect necessary for applied learning. The flexibility inherent in the technology also allows for the easy transfer of information between sites. For example, Friesen says, “You can have Site Teams to meet in one environment without having to travel. This means one or two staff from their various sites across the province: Cochrane, Calgary, Red Deer, and Airdrie can meet and share their experiences and expertise with minimal effort. This allows for coaching and mentoring to occur between nursing trainees and clinical nurse educators. But Friesen doesn’t want to stop at just his organization. He sees the potential of this platform extending across industry partners. “There’s an opportunity,” says Friesen “for collaboration between post-secondary and the health care environment – continuing care specifically, to share learning spaces and not be bound by geography or capacity.” Apart from the physical benefits that VR offers, another measurable outcome is improved quality of training. Unlike the technology of virtual applications like Zoom or Teams, which often seem like watered-down versions of the in-person counterpart, Virtual Reality by nature, enhances opportunities for engagement by providing a complete immersive experience. Friesen says that what they noticed in the initial phase of their Caregiver VR project is that “staff were having to be completely prepared in order to move into the simulation environment. So that means, you couldn’t be distracted by the environment around you, it didn’t matter if your phone was ringing or if there were others wandering around you, what you see and hear is whatever is being projected in the 3D goggles.” While they have not formally tested it, there is plenty of existing data that attribute higher retention levels to immersive experiences. Friesen is confident that the data they collect will support these findings once they are in full swing with the Caregiver VR project. When asked what this means in terms of the quality of care at Bethany Care Society, Friesen says “Managing the competencies in terms of the skills and knowledge of the care team is critical to advance the levels of quality care across our organization. There’s a direct correlation between the quality of education and training and the care received.” Admittedly, Friesen did not know much about VR, nor had he tried on a VR set prior to doing this project. In fact, all of the users in the first rollout have been completely new to the technology. According to Friesen, those who experienced it walked away extraordinarily impressed with the experience and claimed it was far more immersive than they ever anticipated. “It’s absolutely not the typical experience that you would have gotten clinically where we tried to mimic physical reality with physical equipment and medical mannequins. In this scenario, we are able to become the resident, become the caregiver, swap roles, have others observe and debrief.” Not only do scenarios in VR feel more real than traditional clinical simulations, but the possibilities are endless. Essentially, whatever you can dream of can be developed as they evolve the platform. You could for example feature a scenario that depicts the experience from the family’s perspective. While he feels privileged to have received grant money to get the ball rolling, Friesen sees this technology as becoming ubiquitous across the country and the world. The pandemic,” he says “taught us to be reliant on communication/technology to bring people together, and this is just another way of doing that.”

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