Making the human touch virtual

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A team of researchers from Auburn University is taking an innovative approach to training healthcare students about disease states and patient education by participating in immersive virtual reality experiences.

Led by Kimberly Garza, an associate professor in the Harrison School of Pharmacy’s Department of Health Outcomes Research and Policy, the team recently received a Student Learning Through Immersive Virtual Experience grant from Auburn’s Office of Information Technology and the Biggio Center. Titled “Combining Haptics with VR to Support Professional Identity Development in Student Pharmacists through Patient Empathy,” the project combines virtual reality and haptics — mechanical devices that mediate communication between a user and computer — to expose students to various physical limitations that patients may experience.

Healthcare providers and students are knowledgeable about disease states and various physical conditions, but for the most part have never experienced it firsthand. This immersive experience allows students to feel what it is like to live with certain conditions and gain a better understanding of what patients go through.

“The salience of the patient experience can be significantly improved by using an immersive technology, such as virtual reality, in combination with haptic devices to simulate physical limitations associated with chronic disease,” Garza said. “Virtual reality creates the feeling that you are really there, a feeling that the events are really happening and the feeling that you are actually in the virtual body.”

The grant supports the purchase of gloves made by the company TESLASUIT. By wearing the gloves and participating in a virtual reality simulation, students will feel the physical limitations of a hand and individual finger height of certain conditions. By really feeling what the experience is like, students can gain empathy for patients with these conditions.

“Patient empathy among health care providers is a primary part of patient-centered care and is also a mechanism to support professional identity development in health professions students, enabling them to discover their role in addressing patients’ needs,” Garza said. “Therefore, empathic learning activities are critical to the successful development of professional identity among pharmacy students.”

The project will focus in the first iteration on joint immobility with plans to expand to other physical disabilities, such as tremor, visual impairment and hearing loss. The glove can help create a realistic sense of joint mobility by providing forced feedback to make grasping and manipulating objects more difficult.

Students can try various tasks, such as opening a pill box or using an inhaler wearing the gloves, to experience the hardships their patients may experience. The virtual reality component also adds more visual and auditory input to make the whole experience seem more real.

Working with Garza on the project is a diverse group of educators and staff, bringing a variety of perspectives to the experience. Others on the team include Gary Hawkins, Chris Loughnane and Adelia Grabowski, Auburn University Libraries; Cheryl Seals and Chad Rose, Samuel Ginn College of Engineering; Brad Wright, Harrison School of Pharmacy; and Michael Grayson, Raymond J. Harbert College of Business, Information Technology.

With funding supporting this project, it will open doors to other virtual reality and haptic device applications, including the use of a full-body TESLASUIT. Using the technology can help patients and clinicians make informed decisions about disease treatment by experiencing what it’s like to live with the disease.

“In addition to this project, our team is exploring the use of haptics and virtual reality, including a full haptic suit, to simulate disease progression in conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis,” says Garza. “The idea is that we can use virtual reality and haptics on patients who have recently been diagnosed with a disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, to show them how they can expect their condition to progress using different treatment options compared to no treatment. .”


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