Health professionals to receive virtual reality training in perinatal mental health

Health professionals are able to hone their communication skills by talking to a patient avatar called Stacey

3rd April 2023 about a 4 minute read
"Stacey provides students and learners with a wealth of scenarios that they may encounter while they are working in a clinical setting, all in a natural and realistic way." Rebecca Burgess-Dawson, national clinical lead for mental health, Health Education England

Health Education England (HEE) has launched a new virtual reality (VR) training programme to educate health professionals about perinatal mental health, making England the first country in the world to adopt VR technology for this purpose.

The training uses a patient avatar that trainees can use to improve their skills when they talk to women with perinatal mental health issues.

Perinatal mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and postpartum psychosis, affect 10-20% of women giving birth in the UK. Health professionals such as GPs and health visitors need to be able to engage with patients effectively in order to determine the severity of their condition.

The new avatar, called Stacey, has been developed by HEE in partnership with technology company Fracture Reality, and uses the company’s JoinXR platform, which combines virtual reality and augmented reality. To make the training as accessible as possible, HEE-affiliated subject matter experts have worked with Fracture Reality to design natural language conversations. The project was supported by HEE’s Technology Enhanced Learning team, which managed the relationships between subject matter experts and suppliers.

More than 100 participants took part in evaluation

Using a headset, learners interact with Stacey, whose words and behaviour are directed by an instructor. They are able to have realistic and natural conversations with Stacey, asking her about her symptoms and making plans to get her the right support. The integration of augmented reality (which superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world) enables them to practise in their own clinical setting.

Rebecca Burgess-Dawson, national clinical lead for mental health at HEE, said: “Stacey provides students and learners with a wealth of scenarios that they may encounter while they are working in a clinical setting, all in a natural and realistic way.

“The potential impact that she has on perinatal mental health training is enormous and she will have a real benefit for learners in gaining the practice and skills they need for future patients they treat.”

The Centre for Immersive Technologies at the University of Leeds evaluated the training experience. More than 100 participants, including GPs, mental health nurse trainees, student doctors and student clinical psychologists took part.

The Leeds study showed that the technology was both user-friendly and helpful as a learning tool. Participants showed significant improvements in cognitive and emotional understanding after undertaking the simulation. Four out of five (79%) of the participants said they preferred this simulation training over traditional approaches.

Other universities will now be invited to trial the technology with their own students.

Preparing the workforce to provide ‘best possible care’

Dr Faisal Mushtaq, Director of the Centre for Immersive Technologies, said: “The enormous potential for XR to accelerate learning has been clear for some time. But thus far, most examples in healthcare have been limited to areas involving technical skills. For example, we, and others, have shown how VR can be used to learn to perform surgical procedures.

“This project is significant because it demonstrates how these technologies can help people deal with difficult emotionally challenging conversations that can arise in mental health consultations. This is a big step forward for using XR to support learning and skill acquisition.”

Steve Barclay, health and social care secretary, said: “This project shows how we can improve training for staff using interactive technology which creates realistic simulations of clinical settings to help trainee GPs and other medical staff understand complex patient needs, for example replicating face-to-face conversations with new or expecting mums who may have mental health challenges around birth.

“Learning in this immersive way can prepare our future workforce to provide the best possible care for patients.”

Mark Knowles-Lee, chief executive of Fracture Reality, said it was a “great privilege to be at the centre of this multidisciplinary team, coalescing cutting-edge design and development with world-class expertise in healthcare and training.”

FCC Insight

Women who experience mental health problems in the perinatal period can feel that health professionals don’t always listen effectively or make appropriate referrals. It’s encouraging to see that health professionals are being given the opportunity to practise their communication skills using immersive technology that replicates the experience of interacting with a patient. The initial evaluation by the University of Leeds suggests that both trainee and practising health professionals have found the technology immensely helpful, and the next stage is to extend the evaluation to other universities. If successful, this type of technology could prove transformative in training future generations of health professionals to support patients with mental health problems.