‘Raising the skill floor of new graduates’: how XR is creating exciting new opportunities in healthcare education

Santeri Saarinen is the XR technology specialist and R&D lead at Helsinki XR Center, an incubator for talent that connects XR start-ups, innovators and professionals. Following the publication of our XR paper, he explains how extended reality technologies can help newly-qualified health professionals start their careers with an improved skillset

8th May 2024 about a 6 minute read

Q: What do you perceive as the greatest challenge in this space that we need to overcome? 

The way I see it, there are basically two main challenges. Both can be summed up in one word, which is accessibility.

Firstly, the accessibility of content. I think at the moment a lot of the great educational content is created for this field either by university research projects, which means that it’s often very slow or difficult to commercialise after a research project ends, or it is made by small SME companies for small clients, which leads to discoverability issues and people reinventing the same wheel over and over again. So educational institutions just can’t find the correct content with suitable pedagogical solutions to use in their context.

And then the second challenge is the accessibility of devices. Since for XR to be used at a larger scale, you would need 30 to 50 devices per school, and with the current shelf life of the devices only being a few years and requiring constant updating, the investments are often difficult to sell to a university financial department, which is lacking money for education already – and not just the money, but also the physical space needed for each device is often too much. So if we have a full classroom of devices, we often need an empty auditorium to use them effectively at the same time, and a lot of the educational institutions just don’t have that physical space.

Q: What are the most fruitful opportunities that could have the greatest impact? 

I think repetition is the key here. At least here in Finland, one of the largest hurdles in healthcare education in general is the lack of teachers and the lack of time. So the students who need training for different procedures get maybe one try at a procedure, or sometimes just a place in the audience looking at someone else doing that, and never try something with their own hands before graduating. With XR we can simulate an endless amount of different situations and allow the students to get the reps in before actually going in the field, improving their skills exponentially since, instead of getting one try, they can do that 10 or 20 times until they feel comfortable with the situation. And that doesn’t require any large investments in more teachers or more real-life training, just the virtual version of that.


Q: What does good look like and how do you measure impact? 

A: From my point of view, good in the field of healthcare education is something that makes the student go, “I want to do that again” or, “That was just like the training we had last week with the real patient.” So they actually feel motivated and see that it’s very close to real life.

How to measure that impact? That’s often difficult, especially in a field like this, but I would say a clear indication of success would be the skill floor of the people graduating raising from what we have currently, so they need less on-the-job training when they go to a hospital and start their work careers. That’s the actual real-life benefit of the technology, and it’s not really something that we can easily measure in the short term. It requires a lot of investment, especially time-wise, and patience to track the progress of users across multiple sectors across several months or even years – measuring how good they are at something now when they are graduating, and then making a comparison after they have done XR training for two years, and asking: what’s the level at that point? So that’s a long-term investment and it’s difficult to see the short-term benefits unless you have that data from several years.

Q: What is the most innovative application of extended reality technology in healthcare education you have come across? 

A: I think one of the most interesting things that I’ve seen is a mixed-reality solution made by Varjo from Finland and Laerdahl from Denmark. They combined the best things from the digital world and physical training. So they use real mannequins and real tools while wearing the mixed-reality headsets, and then place those real tools and mannequins in the digital environment and provide some additional digital information to make the physical exercise more immersive and more interesting, more motivating. They still get the physical feedback and emotional connection to the mannequin while they are in the immersive digital world. It’s even closer to the real world because they are not using any game controllers or anything like that, but they actually feel the tools and the patient with their hands. I think that Laerdahl are using that internally at the moment, but I don’t think it’s commercialised yet outside of their own use.

Q:  How does your role and organisation fit into the bigger picture of large-scale adoption?

Here at Helsinki XR Center, my role is research and development lead. I see us as having a dual role, not necessarily increasing the adoption rate directly, but hopefully leading by example.

Firstly, since we are a research organisation, we try to move the field forward by trying out new solutions, new interaction techniques, new devices and then hopefully in a few years, whatever we are piloting now can be taken into everyday use.

Secondly, since we are operating in this large ecosystem around the technologies, I see us as the connection point for other organisations. So we can bring people together to discuss, innovate, and collaborate around technology in multiple different fields to create something that has never been seen before.

And that’s why we organise a lot of events and networking opportunities for companies, universities, the public sector and anyone who’s interested to come to us and discuss with people, not just with us, but with each other, to innovate something new.


Read associated blogs or download the XR in Healthcare Education paper by clicking here.

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