Immersive Virtual Reality for Case-Based Learning

VR is a positive game changer for Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center students.

woman wearing virtual reality headset sitting on a bench

VR offers a way to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical skills.

In the rapidly evolving digital age, traditional teaching methods are being augmented by cutting-edge technologies, and immersive virtual reality (VR) has emerged as a powerful tool for case-based learning in medical schools. By immersing students in realistic clinical scenarios and providing interactive experiences, VR offers an unparalleled opportunity to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical skills.

We spoke with Abby Buterbaugh, MMS, PA-C, and Christina Robohm-Leavitt, DMSc, MS, PA-C, about the potential of VR in medical education and how it is currently being used in the TTUHSC Master of Physician Assistant Studies Program to train aspiring healthcare professionals.

Buterbaugh serves as an Assistant Professor in the Master of Physician Assistant Studies Program of the TTUHSC School of Health Professions. Robohm-Leavitt is Associate Professor and Director of the MPAS Program.

What is Immersive Virtual Reality?

Traditionally, simulations for students training as medical-care providers have included the use of actors playing the role of the patient. This comes with limitations that VR can surpass.

Immersive VR is a technology that creates a simulated environment, replicating real-world or fictional scenarios, and immerses users within it. It typically involves wearing a VR headset that provides a visual and auditory experience, enabling users to interact with the virtual environment. By leveraging advanced graphics, motion tracking and sensory feedback, immersive VR aims to create a sense of presence and realism, allowing users to feel as if they are truly present in the virtual world.

“The shortest, simplest explanation is, it’s going to be a learning tool and then eventually an assessment tool,” Buterbaugh begins. “So, not only will we be teaching students through it, but then we’ll be assessing not only their clinical knowledge, but especially their clinical reasoning skills.”

Bringing IVR to TTUHSC

The use of immersive VR came from a specific need for training students with medical professionals spread around multiple campuses while trying to make rotations in rural areas that are harder to access.

“This was funded initially through a Health Resources Services Administration grant for PA Rural Practice. Part of that is placing our students in longitudinal rural rotations with the goal of practicing in more rural areas to increase access to care,” Robohm-Leavitt explains. “So that’s where the premise came up. How can we use technology to enable us to educate our students in an interprofessional environment while rotating in rural clinics?”

As VR gaming technology has evolved and become more accessible, educators and medical professionals have recognized its immersive nature and interactive capabilities, creating specialized applications and content specifically designed for medical training, such as an objective, structured clinical examination, or OSCE.

“We’ve got the headsets, and it immerses them into a room just like they were in a traditional type of OSCE,” Robohm-Leavitt says.

How is Immersive VR Used For Student Training in Medical Fields?

With VR, students can engage in realistic and immersive simulated clinical scenarios that closely resemble OSCE setups. They can practice history-taking, physical examination techniques and communication skills in a safe and controlled virtual environment, receiving immediate feedback and guidance.

“We’re not replacing it [OSCE], we’re augmenting it,” Buterbaugh says.

VR allows for repetitive and interactive practice, promoting skill acquisition, confidence building and critical thinking, all crucial components of excelling in an OSCE. Additionally, VR can offer a wide range of patient cases and variations, ensuring students are exposed to diverse clinical scenarios to enhance their clinical decision-making abilities.

The Possibilities of Multiplayer Scenarios

In a multiplayer VR environment, students can interact and collaborate with their peers, simulating real-world healthcare team dynamics. They can engage in team-based simulations, where each participant assumes a specific role, such as a doctor, nurse or paramedic, and work together to solve complex medical cases.

“With multiplayer scenarios, we can have somebody who is in the Panhandle and someone who’s down in the Big Bend region in the same room together for an interprofessional education experience,” Robohm-Leavitt says. “We could potentially have pharmacy, nursing, MDs, PAs, everybody who needs to be involved with a patient.”

This immersive and interactive platform allows students to practice effective communication, interdisciplinary collaboration and decision-making skills in a realistic and dynamic setting. By experiencing the challenges and intricacies of teamwork in VR, medical students can develop essential skills that will be invaluable in their future clinical practice, where effective teamwork is vital for providing optimal patient care.

The Future of Immersive VR in Medical Training

So far, the impacts from implementing VR into Physician Assistant training have been incredibly positive at TTUHSC.

“It opens up so many opportunities,” Robohm-Leavitt explains. “The VR headset can include an ill patient whereas our standardized patients have been actors and actresses doing the best they can. This [VR] can include a patient that could be sick, or we could have monitors sounding off in real time in the room so that it’s an emergency type of situation.”

Buterbaugh agrees that the future is bright for TTUHSC students.

“When I look back 10 or 12 years ago when I started my PA program, knowing what I know now as a clinician, and also knowing that this technology exists, I wish I could have had it,” Buterbaugh adds. “It makes the understanding of medicine, patient care and clinical reasoning so much more solid.”

Buterbaugh envisions a world where a VR headset is a standard educational requirement, like a laptop or textbook. And if current trends continue, that is precisely where we’re headed. 

woman wearing virtual reality headset sitting on a bench

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