Consider any one of the thousands of individuals who visit their doctor annually and are informed that they need to undergo some medical procedure. It could be a routine procedure like a colonoscopy, or a non-routine procedure like having a cancerous tumor removed. Anytime a patient must undergo a medical procedure there are a number of pre-operative, perioperative, and post-discharge steps that must be followed. Often patients must alter their diets and physical activities prior to (and following) a procedure. Once admitted to the clinic or hospital on the day of the procedure, the patient follows a number of well-defined, sequential steps to prepare for what’s next. Understanding risks associated with a procedure, receiving medications and anesthesia administered by a care team, and undertaking the actual procedure are each a critical part of the whole patient perioperative experience. And no matter how many times a patient might have faced such an intervention before, the unfamiliar environment combined with the inherent complexities and gravitas of personal health leads to significant stress and anxiety.
Though it lasts a few hours at most, a medical procedure is often only a small part of the entire patient journey. The post-procedural transition and road to recovery can be as complex, uncertain and stress-inducing as the procedure itself. Once patients leave the clinic or hospital, patients may be instructed to take medication, modify their diets, or follow a specific physical rehabilitation regimen, for instance. The reality is there is good reason why well-educated patients are proven to have better outcomes and are better able to manage their own health over the long term. At every stage of the patient journey, and through every transition, preparation is key. In its entirety, there is extensive knowledge that patients needs during and after the course of treatment, as well as a number of steps that they must follow for any procedure to be measured a success.
The typical approach is to send the patient home from the doctor with several pages of text that outline the various pre-operative instructions, procedural aims and risks. , and post-operative guidelines . The patient is asked to read this information, to follow the instructions, and to reach out with any questions..
From a learning science perspective—the marriage of psychology and brain science—this is a sub-optimal approach. Text is 2D and abstract. It requires an enormous amount of cognitive processing in the form of working memory and attention to convert that 2D abstract information into a real-world representation. In addition, cognitive processing in the brain is adversely affected by stress and anxiety.
Let’s face it, a patient who is informed that they need a medical procedure is going to be anxious and have stress. They are going to be filled with uncertainty. They are going to wonder about aspects of the hospital visit that are impossible to predict, and, unbeknownst to them, will have little-to-no impact on their overall experience. What is the pre-operative room like? What will they wear? What is the operating room like? Is there a recovery room? Will they experience pain and for how long? What else can they expect that they have not considered? Text-based information is ineffective at providing any of this knowledge, and is made worse by the stress and uncertainty that the patient feels.
Now imagine supplementing the text-based information with an interactive, storytelling experience in virtual reality (VR). Perhaps you follow the journey of a typical patient during their pre-operative, perioperative, and post-operative phase. They might walk you through the necessary changes in diet and exercise prior to the operation. They even give you a few clues on how those changes might make you feel. Next you follow along with the patient as a nurse gives you both a virtual tour of the hospital setting. You see the preparation room, the surgical room, and the recovery room. A nurse introduces you to all the gadgets you might come across during your experience, and even to the “scary-looking” machines that you need not worry about. But just in case, she’ll go over what to expect, and perhaps even how to use your trusty call button if and when necessary during recovery. Finally, you spend a virtual afternoon with the patient while they are recovering at home. They show you all of the medicine that they take and dietary restrictions, and talk about being a little weak, but all in all feeling pretty good. They might reassure you that they are on the road to recovery, one step at a time — and that soon enough, you will be too.
With interactive storytelling in virtual reality you “learn through experience”. Experiential learning with VR is far superior to information learning with text because VR broadly engages multiple learning and memory systems in the brain in synchrony. This reduces the deleterious effect of stress on learning, while simultaneously reducing patients’ stress, and enhancing patient satisfaction.
Virtual reality enables us to deliver meaningful experiences to anxious patients with lasting impacts, one experience at a time.