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Turn and Face the Strange

“A display connected to a digital computer gives us a chance to gain familiarity with concepts not realizable in the physical world. It is a looking glass into a mathematical wonderland1.”

-Ivan B. Sutherland, “Father of Computer Graphics” and inventor of the first virtual reality (VR) head-mounted display

Years before the release of Oculus Rift, Microsoft HoloLens, and other devices, Sutherland sensed that computers could move us beyond the conceptual realm to actually touch and feel complex realities outside our immediate senses—an insight nothing short of revolutionary for those of us working in healthcare marketing and medical education. Augmented reality (AR) and VR let us individually explore the human body’s interior in action, including vital organs such as the brain and heart. They let us explore a life-changing therapy’s mechanism of action at a molecular level. Perhaps most importantly, AR and VR help us learn complex information such as new surgical techniques—quickly, realistically, and without risking patients’ lives when mistakes occur.

As with most revolutionary technologies, AR and VR first found life in academic settings. However, the time is now for healthcare marketing to take the AR and VR plunge. Let’s explore a few examples. 

Making the Case

In 2014, when Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic broke ground on their Health Education Campus—a state-of-the-art building housing the university’s schools of dental medicine, nursing, and medicine, including the Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner College of Medicine—the two institutions agreed they wouldn’t open cadaver labs. Instead, they would look for new ways to teach anatomy2. After several false starts, the hospital and the university received an invite from Microsoft to test a prototype of HoloLens, which, at that time, was a secret technology still in development. HoloLens was a revelation. After the visit, the university, the hospital, and leaders at Microsoft agreed to begin development on an anatomy-focused HoloLens app, tapping into the device’s enormous educational potential. The time is now for healthcare marketing to take the Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality plunge.

Professor Mark A. Griswold was selected as lead faculty member for the project. A pioneer in the field of magnetic resonance imaging, Dr. Griswold had recently formed a new campus institute called the Interactive Commons (IC), a place for connecting people that generates research and drives innovation. Under his direction, IC developed the app, called HoloAnatomy, which was a tremendous success3. It won numerous prizes and, most importantly, showed that learners who used the technology to study an arm, for example, acquired the knowledge in half the time compared with students who studied using cadavers4.

Going Deep

In 2016, Stanford University opened its Neurosurgical Simulation and Virtual Reality Center. It was the first institution in the greater Pacific Northwest to use patient-specific, three-dimensional (3D) VR technology across neurosurgery clinics, operating rooms, and classrooms5. Additionally, the clinic is the first functional neurosurgery and spine clinic in the world to use patient-specific 360-degree VR for direct patient engagement. Since opening, more than 400 patients have experienced 360-degree VR at some point during their care.

By fusing two-dimensional (2D) images from MRI and CT scans using advanced software, the scientists at Stanford were able to create 3D images of patient anatomy. They then use VR headsets to explore brain tissue and vessels without having to open the skull. This technology allows physicians to simulate surgery before it happens so that by the day of surgery, it’s as if the surgeon had already been there. It can also educate and train fellows and residents or reassure patients about to undergo surgery—in short, the Neurosurgical Simulation and Virtual Reality Center is revolutionizing patient care.

Changing Behaviors

So, what does this all have to do with healthcare marketing? A whole lot, it turns out. The educational principles driving VR’s success make it especially attractive to those of us in healthcare marketing looking to give our clients an edge. A recent study from the University of Maryland demonstrates that VR displays “…afford a superior spatial awareness by leveraging our vestibular and proprioceptive senses as compared to traditional desktop displays.” How do they do this? By creating virtual “memory palaces.”

Memory palaces are a natural spatial mnemonic in use since classical times. They take advantage of the brain’s ability to organize thoughts and concepts spatially. For example, the Roman orator Cicero was believed to have used the memory palace technique by envisioning speeches and poems as spaces within the auditorium he was orating. The concept behind memory palaces is to “…map words or phrases onto a mental model of an environment…and then recall those phrases by mentally visualizing that part of the environment6.”

The University of Maryland study demonstrated that users who used VR had an 8.8% improvement in recall accuracy compared to those who learned information via desktop computer. In other words, VR users created a more robust and effective memory palace. That’s good news for those of us in healthcare marketing looking for a way to make our messages stickier with our audiences. In concluding the study, the researchers wrote, “If memory recall could be enhanced through immersively experiencing the environment in which the information was learned, it would suggest that virtual environments could serve as a valuable tool for various facets of retrospective cognizance, including retention and recall.”

Immersive experiences, specifically VR and AR, will drive future learning tools that help healthcare marketers change healthcare provider behaviors to improve patient care. Additionally, these new immersive experiences allow learners to learn more deeply—not just reading about the heart but magnifying and touching it; not just watching a video about a drug’s mechanism of action but holding the molecules in your hand and putting them together in real-time. The future is literally now. If we want to change behaviors, these new immersive experiences must become an indispensable part of our toolkit.

  1. Augmented Reality - The Ultimate Display
  2. A Revolutionary Breakthrough In Teaching and Learning
  3. HoloAnatomy Honors
  4. Virtual Reality Surgery Operating Room
  5. Stanford Neurosurgery Division
  6. Virtual Reality Study

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