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South Coast Nursing Students Use Virtual Reality To Learn How To Empathize With Patients

Empathy is an important part of nursing that’s difficult to teach. But now nursing students on the South Coast are using technology to learn how to empathize with their patients. Virtual reality is helping students step in their patients’ shoes.

“You are about to embody Alfred James, 74-year-old African American male,” says Ben Hytrek, the media specialist for the Faculty Innovations and Teaching or FIT Studio at Cal State Channel Islands in Camarillo.

He is introducing nursing students to this virtual reality program created by Embodied Labs. The company builds virtual reality simulations like this one to train health care professionals and students across the country.

Hytrek explains this virtual reality scenario to CSUCI students.

“He has age-related macular degeneration, and AMD causes progressive central vision loss. You’ll also be experiencing some high frequency hearing loss,” he says.

Nursing student Lisa Agor is about to virtually become Alfred.

“I’m just excited about being able to actually embody another person and experience their situation,” she says.

A large black blob obscures her vision as she experiences what AMD is like.

The university started this virtual reality pilot program so that its nursing students can learn how to better care for their patients.

The scenario begins at the dining room table as Alfred’s family throws him a birthday party. And then he knocks over a glass of wine. His son takes him to a doctor to get checked out. He can hardly see or hear. The doctor gives him a device that improves his hearing.

The scenario is over, and Agor pulls off the headset.

“Wow," she says. “Kind of crazy actually and kind of frustrating.”

Agor says this virtual reality experience will make her a better nurse.

“You got to be able to have some feeling for what your patients are going through. And because if you don’t, then it’s just another patient. You need to be able to relate to them and be able to share in their experience and their feelings and be able to be support for them,” she says.

Cal State Channel Islands Associate Professor of Nursing Jaime Hannans says this program is teaching the students one of the key components of nursing…empathy.

“Empathy is really difficult to measure. And it’s something we struggled with where we want to build in nursing but where do we build it, how do we build it? You still aren’t able to walk in the patients’ shoes. And this provides an opportunity to do that that I think creates a different point of learning that builds their empathy in a different way,” she says.

Nursing student Alysha Payne says it helps her understand how patients feel.

“I had that gut feeling of being a burden to the family. I never got that before. You hear patients, as they start getting older and declining, say ‘I don’t want to be a burden to my family.’ I understood that,” she says.

Hanaans says by understanding how patients feel, nurses can provide better care.

“You can’t care for someone and understand their needs and really provide for them unless you have some sense of empathy for them. It’s so essential to caring. And I think if we can really focus on how to do that, we will not only provide nurses that have knowledge but we will have nurses that can actually pay attention to small things that make the patient experience that much better,” she says.

She says the university is hoping to permanently integrate this virtual reality experience in its nursing programs.