Atticus Finch’s famous line — you can’t truly understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it — has been given a modern interpretation by Alzheimer’s Australia, Vic. Collaborating with the team at Deakin Software and Technology Innovation Laboratory, they have created EDIE (Educational Dementia Immersive Experience) a virtual reality (VR) smartphone app you experience with cardboard goggles.
Who is EDIE?
EDIE is the first of its kind in Australian healthcare. The program was the result of thinking how current training methods could best convey to carers the gamut of issues dementia patients face daily.
As Dr Tanya Petrovich, the Business Development Manager, Learning and Development, at Alzheimer's Australia, Vic noted: ‘We had been teaching people for 30 years about dementia, but we felt, that we weren’t making a big enough impact on the carers. We asked ourselves, how can we change to get a better outcome? It’s one thing to tell people about the symptoms. However, if you have a way for carers to immerse themselves into the life of a dementia patient, you’re allowing them to gain an insight into what it actually means to live with the illness.’
Being presented with a mobile VR solution was a real ‘penny-drop’ moment for the team. The immersive, intimate and sensory nature of the experience allows users to get a real sense of what it’s like to live your life with dementia in a way traditional teaching methods can’t.
Users see the world through the perspective of Edie, a man who was diagnosed with dementia two years ago. Edie lives with his wife. The teaser scenario presented is Edie waking up early in the morning and needing to use the bathroom. Through the app, we begin to understand the world Edie inhabits and the frustrations he presents for his wife.
How can virtual reality inspire more meaningful care?
A common misconception of dementia is that the patient is only suffering from memory loss. However, dementia sufferers actually experience a range of symptoms, including hallucination, perception problems, disorientation and extreme confusion. All of these symptoms are experienced by the user during their brief time as Edie.
The program feels so real because the team worked extensively with carers and patients and many of the scenarios that Edie encounters are based on true stories.
For example, as Edie in the simulation you get out of bed and the walls become blurry and you see a dark outline in your room. You think it’s an intruder, but it’s actually a pot-plant shadow . As Dr Petrovich says: ‘As a carer, you may see a patient overreact to a shadow and you are bemused. But when you understand, for them it’s actually an intruder, you suddenly realise how scary and confusing it must be for the patient.’
These experiences are vital in combating the stigma surrounding dementia. And it’s been proven that VR actually improves empathy. A research team at Swinburne University found that the use of VR in dementia education improved the participant's empathy three-fold.
The study tested workshop participants to circle bathroom objects that they could make dementia-friendly. They discovered that people who had gone through the VR training had a much better understanding of what needed to change. The ability to truly comprehend the dementia landscape, provides a rich scope to improve a patient’s quality of life.
What is the scope of VR in healthcare?
But the implications for this technology don’t just stop with dementia. In fact the potential of virtual reality technology in healthcare is incredibly exciting. Neurosurgical students at the UCLA use VR to deeply examine a patient’s brain, allowing them to get a very deep look at ‘the brain’s complex architecture and pinpoint an aneurysm prior to surgery.’
VR technology has also been proven to be very effective in treating pain, including physical rehabilitation, burn care and in alleviating the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sufferers.
The use of VR is becoming more apparent in diagnostics, microsurgery, medical education and dentistry. Not only is the technology becoming more sophisticated, but also more available and cheaper. For example, the cardboard goggles were appealing for Alzheimer’s Australia, Vic because they are so affordable (you can buy them from the organisation for $15), yet the experience is very sophisticated.
Being able to provide access to such a readily available technology also means that the experience isn’t just limited to big professional training organisations, but can be used to inform communities and families about healthcare issues in a meaningful and compassionate way.
Creating awareness for the challenges people face when living with a long-term condition also has wider social implications. As we look at an ageing population, knowing what citizens will need will be critical in shaping policy and community understanding. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates that by 2050 those diagnosed with dementia will increase to 900,000 (currently that figure is over 300,000).
Even though VR is often considered an entertainment technology, it’s applications are far broader. We’ve only scratched the surface of how it can be applied in healthcare. The next few years are going to be critical in making sure it fulfills its potential.
If you’d like to experience EDIE for yourself, then you can check out the work Alzheimer’s Australia, Vic is doing here. And if you are excited by the possibilities of emerging technology on the healthcare landscape, then you should consider signing-up for Digital Health Conference 2017 today!