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NHS mental health workers turn to VR to tackle inequality on wards

As NHS mental health services face record-breaking levels of demand, researchers from Maudsley Learning at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM) are building cutting-edge VR simulations to deliver diversity and inclusion training to frontline mental health staff.

With access to training currently proving a major barrier to care delivery and staff retention in the NHS, VR is being embraced as a low-cost and easily scalable solution by organisations including King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and Health Education England, who are set to pilot the technology with their staff.

The Maudsley Learning team have partnered with immersive training pioneers Virti, and have created unique VR scenarios to be rolled out to staff members, who will be able to access them on VR headsets, or via mobile devices. The project is part of extensive research into how we can overcome ongoing and systemic inequalities in healthcare.

Using the new technology, mental health workers will be able to enter an immersive and realistic environment to practice skills like empathy, inclusion and interpersonal awareness before applying them on the ward. Educators use the scenarios as a springboard for a discussion in a structured debrief conversation.

The simulations have been built by Virti: a VR training company founded by an NHS surgeon in Bristol to improve healthcare training. They can be accessed on-demand and the tech has been shown to improve performance by up to 230%. Maudsley hopes it will help speed up D&I training, improve patient outcomes and tackle racial, ethnnic and gender disparities in mental health care provision.

Virti’s analytics platform allows access to an array of data on learner performance, including decision speed & accuracy and user engagement., which can be used to improve the scenarios on an ongoing basis.

James Pathan, Head of Operations at Maudsley Learning, said:

“Immersive VR technology has huge potential to transform the way that we train healthcare staff. In busy hospital environments, it’s near impossible to find the time and resources that are needed to deliver effective upskilling programmes, but recent innovations in VR tech have the potential to offer a very impactful solution.

A major advantage is the scalability of the technology, and the potential to reach more of the workforce with lower cost, experiential training. Having this training placed on wards allows staff to access learning at their own convenience. Workplace based, in-situ training takes the training out of the classroom and directly to the learners.

“Our research has shown that learners undergoing immersive simulation training not only learn more quickly, retain information for longer and are more engaged with the content. The team here at Maudsley Learning are very excited by the opportunities that this technology has to offer the healthcare education sector at this time of intensified need.”

Dr Claire Tiley, Fellow in Medical Education at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, said:

“From my own experience, I know that training with these new simulations on the Virti platform is a very different experience to traditional classroom or e-learning. I think that the scenarios are very emotive. Using the VR headset, and accessing the Virti platform, it really felt as though you were in the room and you could feel the emotion from the characters. As a bystander in the scenario it’s almost as if the characters are asking for your help or for you to defend them.”

Maudsley Learning is working to develop, trial and deploy more mental health based VR training modules, including diversity and inclusion, conflict de-escalation, reducing restrictive practices and training to increase awareness and knowledge of how mental and physical health can impact on each other.

This project is further evidence of a growing appetite for data-backed VR training in the healthcare sector: the Virti platform is also being used to deliver surgical training to medical students at Somerset NHS Foundation Trust, and to support medics in Los Angeles-based Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in developing essential communication skills.

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