Hospices Engage Virtual Reality in Staff Training

An increasing number of hospice providers are incorporating virtual reality (VR) technology into their staff training. Hospice of Southern Maine is one of those organizations. In 2018, they were approached by Embodied Labs, one of the leading vendors of this technology in the health care space. The idea was to collaborate on a new VR module that deals with end-of-life situations. Hospice of Southern Maine enthusiastically agreed.

To do this, staff from Embodied Labs spent a weekend at one of Hospice of Southern Maine’s inpatient facilities. They engaged with the patients and staff and gained first-hand knowledge and perspective that would prove invaluable to creating realistic scenarios.

In this three-part program, known as the “Clay Lab,” participants take on the role of Clay, a 66-year-old veteran with stage IV, incurable lung cancer. As Clay, the participant receives news of the terminal diagnosis, has a fall that leads to a discussion of hospice care, and finally experiences his final days and the end of his life. Some of these activities are not part of the typical hospice worker’s job experience, but can help them understand more about the process as a whole.

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The module goes further than passively watching a video with a headset.

“We do use the 360° film, but combine it with immersive interactivity,” explains Erin Washington, co-founder of Embodied Labs. “You have virtual hands, and you can respond to questions.” Actions and responses can impact the story and influence how the doctors, hospice workers, and family members in the program react.

Those who complete the modules report feeling less helpless and fearful about the end of life and more empowered to have those difficult end-of-life conversations.

The program has applications beyond staff training. Many of Embodied Labs’ customers use the VR modules for patient education and community outreach efforts. For example, it can demystify hospice care and help patients make informed decisions. Washington reports that patients who use the Clay Lab have a more favorable view of hospice care and are more likely to use those services.

Hospice of Southern Maine found the program almost too effective. Early in the Clay Lab’s rollout, some staff members became emotionally overwhelmed by the experience and had difficulty completing the modules.

“We quickly realized that we needed to better support our staff,” says Hospice of Southern Maine CEO Daryl Cady. “We slowed down the rollout and made sure we had counselors and chaplains available during training.”

Washington predicts that VR training will soon become the gold standard in health care training, particularly as the technology improves. Higher image quality and mobility, especially during wireless operation (when the headset is not tethered to a computer), are currently in development. Artificial intelligence and machine learning will also be key in providing more immersive, personalized, and effective training.

Written by Lea Anne Stoughton

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