The Promise of Virtual Reality in Healthcare:  Part Three

Posted by Todd Maddox & Tim Fitzpatrick on Oct 31, 2019 3:50:48 PM
VR Applications for the Senior Care Workforce

By 2030, 25% of Americans will be 65 or older by 2030 (U.S. Census). Approximately 90% of baby boomers aim to age-in-place, but these numbers drop when physical and mental deterioration sets in. In a recent LeadingAge survey, 40% of baby boomers said they wanted to live somewhere other than the place they currently call home if they had a physical disability impacting their day-to-day lives, and 70% want to be in a staffed senior care facility if they have dementia and need help with daily activities. These statistics suggest a growing need for senior care professionals, with the direct care workforce expected to grow from 4.4 million to 5.8 million--an increase of 30%-- from 2016 to 2026. This places a heavy burden on staffed senior care facilities to recruit, onboard and train direct care workers to meet the complex needs of seniors.

Unfortunately, high-quality education and training can be difficult to find, harder still to replicate, and in too many cases, minimal and often ineffective training is provided. When training is made available, it usually comes in the form of textbooks, training manuals, or classroom-based instruction that engage only the cognitive skills learning system in the brain. A more effective approach would be to broadly engage experiential, cognitive, emotional and behavioral learning systems in the brain in synchrony. The question becomes: how can we do that in a way that is at once complementary to existing methods, while also more consistent, accessible, scalable and available on-demand?

Senior care education and training are ripe for the application of modern technologies like virtual reality (VR), which broadly engages multiple learning systems in the brain in synchrony by transporting learners into realistic situations. What better way to understand how a candidate might react in a challenging scenario; or to help guide new and experienced hires through the rigors of caregiving? VR can be fruitfully applied at every stage of the caregiver’s journey: from recruitment to onboarding and continuous training for the direct care workforce.


VR can be used to enhance frontline senior care recruiting efforts for the direct care workforce, from certified nursing assistants (CNAs) to non-clinical home health aides and the myriad roles in between. With turnover rates ranging from 45 – 65%, giving potential recruits a better understanding of the nature of the job through VR experiences would be advantageous. Imagine having a recruit put on a VR headset and experience a “Day in the Life of Caregiving” where they watch the rules being followed or broken — along with the consequences for each path taken.

Users might shadow a seasoned professional who is mitigating a fall, or experience the many challenges associated with memory loss. They might also have VR experiences that emphasize communication, responsiveness, and empathy by allowing the recruit to “walk a mile in a senior’s shoes”. Learners can obtain a first-person virtual experience with an apathetic or non-communicative frontline worker, or obtain a first-person virtual experience of the senior’s frustration when a frontline worker states that they will “only be a minute”, but don’t return for ten to twenty minutes. 

These “walk a mile in my shoes” experiences are visceral. They engage emotional and experiential learning centers in the brain that quickly and effectively build empathy. Recruits who are not “cut out” for this kind of work will choose a different line of work, or perhaps will not be hired in the first place. Those who are ultimately hired will have a better understanding of what to expect and show higher levels of confidence. The hiring professional can rest assured that the frontline worker is prepared and that the residents will receive excellent care.


Research suggests that new hires decide whether to stay at a job long-term within a few weeks of being hired. Studies show that effective onboarding can improve retention rates by 52 percent, time to productivity by 60 percent, and overall satisfaction by 53 percent. Imagine using the “Day in the Life of Senior Care” VR experience during the onboarding process.

 This can begin with a virtual tour of the facility to familiarize the learner, through experience, with the layout of the facility. During the virtual tour, standard operating procedures that are most relevant in a given location can be described by the CNA tour guide. During the tour the new recruit can witness a challenging situation between two residents or between a resident and a CNA. The recruit can observe as a seasoned CNA diffuses the situation, then offers the recruit tricks and tips on how to mitigate similar situations that they might face. The new recruit can even experience an emergency situation and observe the seasoned CNA follow the emergency protocols in a calm and methodical manner.

 This “Day in the Life” experience could be followed by VR experiences focused on communication, responsiveness, and empathy. A series of VR experiences focused on dementia and memory care, sundowning, and physical changes associated with normal aging could follow. All of this training can be accomplished in a familiar, safe environment for the learner, which not only results in better prepared hires, but also goes a long way towards demonstrating an organization’s commitment to its employees.

Ongoing Training

Once the onboarding process is complete, the next step is to initiate an ongoing education and training program. The brain is hardwired to forget so ongoing training is needed to “train for retention”. VR, as a complement to an existing Learning Management System (should one be in place), provides the perfect tool for this. Ongoing training around the many physical, emotional and cognitive changes associated with normal aging is in order. Continued training on the important people skills needed to ensure that staff are responsive to residents, communicate effectively, and show the empathy required to provide the best care is in order. Finally, training on medical procedures such as proper care for a tracheostomy tube, drain, or central line are trained effectively with VR. 

The senior care industry is ripe for the introduction of immersive, VR education and training technologies to complement existing training tools and to facilitate recruitment, onboarding, and continuous training. These tools educate and train through experience. Put plainly: VR builds knowledge and expertise — one experience at a time.


Find the full 5-part series here:

Part One: The Neuroscience and Four Use Cases.

Part Two: Patient Education & Health Professional Training.

Part Three: Preparing the Senior Care Workforce.

Part Four: Mental Health, Therapy & Addiction. 

Part Five: Pain Management.


Topics: Senior Care, Onboarding, Training, Staff Training, Recruiting, Workforce

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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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