Preality VR can help medical students learn to cope with stress situations

6 June 2017
It’s challenging enough for a seasoned clinician to assess a trauma patients condition, but imagine dropping a PT student into a high-stress, high-stakes environment to learn from experience. Students, although prepared with simulated patients and situations in the classroom, often are overwhelmed by all that’s happening. The gap between classroom simulation and real clinical life means they typically need two to three weeks to just get used to the ICU environment and be ready to learn.

Williams and her husband, Eric, a professor of fine arts at Ohio University, are part of a grant to create and test 360-degree virtual experiences to train future health care providers, according to a Northern Arizona University press release, placed on Newswire.  However, instead of creating a computer-generated virtual environment, which is typically how virtual reality is presented, they create immersive experiences using 360-degree video cameras and audio equipment to capture actual patient care delivered by practicing health care professionals.


“Here, you’re right in the middle of things,” Williams explains. “We’re really seeing how the health care providers act in that situation. Things usually don’t go perfectly. Simulations tend to be perfect, but these aren’t.” Their name for the immersive virtual reality application is ‘preality’, or preparation for reality. It’s actual reality, but the student is only virtually there.

Williams compares the experience to students peeking over the physical therapist’s shoulder and in the actual clinical environment in which they’ll be working. The goal is to use these immersive preality experiences to fill the gap between classroom simulation and clinical practice.

Reducing acclimation time

The thought is that, when students are actually in the ICU, the situation will be familiar and less scary, thus reducing the time students need to acclimate to be ready to learn, says Williams. “It would give them a chance to watch and observe the actual clinic site without the pressure of having to be responsible for things or being in the way. They can ask what’s going on with this line, why is this person breathing that way. It gives them a chance to stare without being caught staring."

The project is a continuation on earlier forays into immersive virtual reality. The Williamses worked together in a trauma center to record patients and their doctors, using a 360-degree camera at eye level that captured all the activity in the emergency room—doctors yelling, computers beeping, patients bleeding and in pain as health care providers work on them.

The cameras used are about fist-sized and are placed at eye level, so the user is in the action, not an observer from the side or above. The footage is not only real but it’s taken in places where students will be working, giving them the feeling of being right there. The trauma center is using the preality experiences as part of their resident orientation training program.

Additional tool

Preality experiences are not about to replace the simulations physical therapy students do in the classroom, but they will be an additional tool to help student prepare for difficult health care situations, Williams said.

They are the only group using virtual reality in this way that Williams knows of, and it’s getting noticed. Petra and Eric Williams presented at the Virtual Reality and Healthcare Symposium last week in Washington, D.C., and already were getting calls from throughout the country from programs interested in implementing 360-degree video VR into health care provider training.

In partnership with clinicians at Northern Arizona Healthcare, Williams plans to begin making recordings in the fall at Verde Valley as patients and clinicians give permission. The turnaround is quick enough that her students may be able to access these recordings this fall.