Why Virtual Reality is Advantageous for Healthcare Education in Children and Seniors
The United States has a health literacy problem, with 9 of 10 Americans struggling to understand and use health information. But this is not merely a macro health issue: low health literacy costs the U.S. economy up to $238 billion dollars per year.
This is an education and training problem.
To better understand and address such a complex, far-reaching issue, one must look inward, to learning science – the marriage of psychology and neuroscience.
The most common approach to healthcare education and training is to present the patient with a page or two of text, or perhaps slides of a PowerPoint deck that describe some medication, treatment, procedure, or other relevant information. The patient must convert this static, 2D text-based and picture-based information into a 3D visual representation of the details of the medication, treatment, or procedure being addressed.
To achieve this goal the patient recruits the cognitive skills learning system in the prefrontal cortex of the brain where working memory and executive attention processes reside. Each of these steps requires an enormous amount of cognitive capacity (in the form of working memory), and an enormous amount of cognitive energy (in the form of executive attention). Any time working memory load and executive attentional demands are taxed, patients are more likely to make an error and generate an inferior mental representation. Add stress and anxiety into the mix, as is common in medical settings, and the likelihood of an error increases many-fold.
If a 3D dynamic representation is the ultimate goal, then it makes sense to utilize a 3D dynamic representation as the training tool of choice. This is exactly how well-constructed VR training environments work. An accurate, dynamic 3D representation is generated (using 360 video or computer graphics) and presented to the patient. Critically, because the patient is immersed they have a feeling of “presence”. This means that the experiential learning system in the brain that encompasses the occipital, temporal and parietal lobes is engaged, in addition to cognitive, emotional and behavioral learning centers in the brain. The patient is learning through “experience” instead of simply processing “information”.
As the previous discussion suggests, and as we have elaborated in detail elsewhere (1, 2, 3, 4), the learning science is clear in showing that high-quality VR technologies are effective healthcare education and training tools in adults and are superior to traditional textbook and even slideshow training materials. VR spreads the wealth of training across these systems in the brain, and spreads the burden thus reducing the cognitive load. VR tools lead to better learning and long-term retention by slowing the brain’s natural tendency to forget. VR reduces stress and anxiety in adult patients, and increases patient satisfaction.
Advantages For Children and Seniors
The advantages of VR for adult patient education and training are significant, but the advantages in children and seniors are even greater.
Human development and normal aging have fascinating effects on the prefrontal cortex and the cognitive processes — working memory and executive attention — associated with this brain region. The prefrontal cortex is slow to develop in humans, not reaching full capacity until an individual is in their mid-20s. In addition, prefrontal cortical function declines with normal aging, in many cases starting in middle age. Because prefrontal cortical function is less effective in children and older adults, this means that children and older adults are going to be less effective learners when content is presented in text or slideshow format. This means an increase in errors and serious medical consequences in these populations. Given the fact that baby boomers are now “older adults” this has the potential to escalate into a crisis. Fortunately, visual representation areas in the occipital lobes are quicker to develop and slower to decay, boosting the advantage of VR in children and older adults.
VR is ripe to disrupt the medical sector. The disruption will be significant in adults but has the potential to be even greater in children and older adults. VR can increase health literacy across all ages, but especially in children and seniors – one experience at a time.