Why VR is a Learning Machine: Communication and Empathy

Posted by Todd Maddox & Tim Fitzpatrick on May 17, 2020 11:34:55 PM

Meet Jerome.

Jerome is a 29 year old Registered Nurse who lives and works in the Heartland of America. Jerome received his R.N. in early 2019 and immediately found employment in a nearby hospital in St. Louis. He was excited to put his knowledge and skills to work in the interest of patient health and well-being. As with so many newly-minted RNs he found the job exhilarating, but he also felt like there were some significant gaps in his training. In particular, he noticed very quickly that interpersonal skills are central to providing high-quality healthcare, yet this was almost completely absent from his formal training.

When he expressed this concern to his more seasoned colleagues they all nodded their head in agreement and assured him that effective communication skills training would be learned on-the-job. It was unspoken, though clear, they all agreed more training on these critical skills ought to be available in school.

Jerome is proactive and a true problem solver. He took matters into his own hands and began doing everything he could to educate himself. He scoured the internet to learn more about the characteristics of effective communication and empathy. He watched video examples of effective and ineffective communication, and people exhibiting high or low levels of empathy. He was amazed at the subtleties that distinguish an effective communicator from an ineffective one. So much of it is around body language and an ability to “read” another person.

Through a bit of internet research and videos available online, Jerome was able to educate himself during his breaks and on his own time at home. Despite the ready availability of these educational materials, he still found them lacking. He realized very quickly that it is one thing to know what to do, but something completely different to know how to do it. It was as if he was gaining a cognitive understanding of effective communication and empathy, but understood this did not translate very well into behavior and the important emotional aspects associated with effective communication and empathy.

To add insult to injury, the COVID-19 pandemic came crashing down on his hospital and the surrounding areas of St. Louis. For society in general this meant physical distancing was to become the “new normal”. At the same time though, many acknowledged the need to be closer than ever socially to prevent isolation and to support mental health and wellness. For healthcare professionals, this placed an even greater emphasis on effective communication, empathy and compassion. All the pain points that Jerome had been struggling with immediately became exponentially more pronounced, and vital in his role as an RN.

The need is clear. Jerome needs something more than the internet and videos. He needs a training solution that offers consistent, highly effective training. Time is more valuable than ever as he needs to focus on his patients. He needs the training solution to be brief but effective. Ideally, it can scale as Jerome is just one of thousands of healthcare professionals who could benefit. He needs it on-demand: when and where he needs it.

The solution needs to do more than provide a cognitive understanding. It needs to help Jerome “feel” and “experience” empathy and effective communication from multiple perspectives. Simply put, Jerome needs a solution that engages his brain in a way that builds the emotional and behavioral aspects of effective communication quickly and accurately.

As outlined in our recent report, Jerome needs a learning solution that broadly engages experiential, emotional, behavioral and cognitive learning centers in his brain in synchrony, and in the interest of building the emotional and behavioral skills associated with effective communication and empathy. A learning solution of this sort must be immersive, consistently high-quality, and available on demand – when and where Jerome needs it.

Virtual reality (VR) offers an ideal tool for building empathy and effective communication skills. With virtual reality one can “walk a mile in another’s shoes”. One can see through another’s eyes and can hear through another’s ears. One can be transported into the body of a COVID-19 patient and can see and feel their stress and anxiety. They can see the fear in their eyes as they are separated from their loved ones. Once can be transported into the body of the loved one and can experience the uncertainty and fear of the unknown without their loved one. These types of visceral experiences quickly and effectively build empathy.



Analogously, one can be transported into the body of a patient struggling to follow the conversation with a healthcare professional. From the healthcare professionals perspective they may be conveying information effectively, but from the patient perspective the speech is too fast, it appears jumbled and incomprehensible, and full of medical jargon. One can then be transported into the body of a patient who is clearly the sole focus of a different healthcare professional. That healthcare professional, although covered in PPE, is channeling all of their empathy and understanding into eye contact. They are speaking slowly and methodically, avoiding jargon, and stopping often to allow the patient to ask any questions.  

A broad array of content like this can be developed for healthcare providers. If time is at a premium, a single 5 – 10-minute VR module can be experienced. If more time is available, several VR experiences can be undertaken across the day or week. Across experiences, and over time, Jerome’s body learns these communication and empathy skills and they become second nature. 

VR is consistent, efficient and available on demand. It can help Jerome, and other healthcare professionals, learn the communication and empathy skills needed to help patients. It can help build the emotional and behavioral repertoire needed outside of the VR headset. VR broadly and effectively engages Jerome’s brain and helps him learn the skills that he needs—one experience at a time.



Topics: Training, Communication, Learning, Nursing, Empathy, Virtual reality

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At the end of the day, your healthcare journey begins and ends with you. Using virtual reality to improve education and training in healthcare has limitless potential to impact the lives of everyone you meet along the way.

Remember, evidence shows VR:

  • Improves satisfaction
  • Decreases anxiety
  • Improves learning
  • Improves retention
  • Increases actionable empathy
  • Outperforms classroom-based learning
  • Is the medium preferred by learners

The benefits of VR have never been more accessible.

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