How can virtual reality help to bridge the medical education gap?

Technologies such as simulation and VR can be used to help progress medical education and encourage enrolment and retention at further and higher education, as well as in GP and specialist training

In August this year, the NHS lost its position as the top-ranked health service in the developed world. 

Having held the number one spot of the Commonwealth Fund’s influential ranking for the past two reports, the UK slid three places down, landing in fourth place. 

The US-based ThinkTank responsible for evaluating the list cited appointment delays and increased wait times as the key reason for this decision. 

As with many other countries worldwide, the UK’s health service has been put under severe strain by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The past 18 months have placed unprecedented pressures on the NHS and its staff, and this has been two-fold; firstly, to provide immediate care for patients admitted with the disease, and secondly to shift day-to-day processes to either partially- or fully-remote formats. 

These pressures have culminated in a growing backlog of non-urgent and routine diagnosis, treatments and operations, which estimates say could grow up to 13 million

A workforce crisis 

But, though it may be easy to look at this backlog and the delays it has caused and lay the blame solely on the pandemic, there are many other factors at play.

As Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst at corresponding UK ThinkTank, the Kings Trust, puts it: “We can’t brush this under the carpet as being solely a consequence of the impact of the pandemic on patients, staff and services. Even before COVID, waiting lists for treatment were already sizeable after a decade of stalling funding and a growing workforce crisis.” 

This ‘workforce crisis’ has been an issue in the NHS for the past decade. There are simply not enough skills available to fill medical roles and meet the demands of the growing British population. As it stands, the government’s ‘Shortage Occupation List’ (a resource used to indicate where national skills gaps are present) includes several key medical roles, including General Practitioners, Nurses, Paramedics, Nursing Assistants, Laboratory Technicians, Health Managers and Senior Care Workers. In practice, this means there’s not enough domestic talent to fill these roles, and that we must rely on skills from outside the UK to close this gap. This issue has been exacerbated by the UK’s departure from the EU last year, as the domestic talent pool has shrunk further to include only British citizens and settled people.

There are simply not enough skills available to fill medical roles and meet the demands of the growing British population

As a result, the patient-to-GP ratio is the worst it has been in 50 years, 1 in 10 nurse positions are unfilled, and the annual shortfall of healthcare workers across the board is set to reach 350,000 by 2030. These shortages were existent before the outbreak of coronavirus in the UK, and meant that the NHS was left especially vulnerable to the pressures it placed on it. 

Treating the medical education gap 

This issue goes beyond being able to recruit and retain qualified people. The ‘medical education gap’ refers to the fact that not enough students are choosing to study medicine or qualify as healthcare professionals, curtailing their studies, or choosing to change careers early after graduation. 

According to one study, there are three key stages at which the medical education gap is the most evident: in placements during school, in a healthcare professional’s first job after graduation/training, and in the ‘training-practice transfer’ that’s continued into a person’s professional career. 

It’s in these three areas that education methods and formats need to be considered and optimised. Through this, students, graduates and employees will be more likely to stay engaged with their studies/work and retain their interest in a long-term healthcare career. 

According to the study, many of the issues noted in each of the three areas revolved around students not being able to match up a theoretical clinical understanding with a practical one.

For young people in schools, much of the knowledge transferred in a classroom setting relating to medical practice is innately theoretical, and can often be alienating to those trying to understand it. 

Equally, the study describes how the movement into their first job can often be daunting, and matching up this theoretical understanding with what it means to work in a hospital or practice can be challenging:  

Students who are experiencing the workplace for the first time often learn that what they were taught in the classroom does not correlate well with the realities of the practice setting,” it says. 

This can also be an issue for current healthcare staff who wish to progress and specialise. 

Teaching ‘Generation Z’

VR and interactive simulation technologies may be an ideal way to bridge this gap. 

By presenting a format in which students and trainees can simulate the experience of clinical practice, they will be able to form an understanding of what working at a practice will be like. 

Likewise, implementing advanced technologies like this in schools and colleges is likely to engage more young people in medicine. Not only does it provide a more practical, lateral understanding of clinical curriculums, but it also appeals to younger generations who tend to engage with technology and interactive learning styles more effectively. 

In the workplace, VR could also provide a great tool for healthcare professionals who are specialising. It has already been trialled in fields such as radiography, and for complex surgical procedures such as heart and brain surgery. And for those sceptical about these claims, one need only look to the success of initial medical VR and simulation trials across the globe. 

One 2018 study found that 48% of a batch of medical examinees had used virtual education technology to help them better understand laparoscopic surgery training. Of this same batch, the use of simulators had improved the final grades of 74% of students and 87% of cases where VR technologies had been used as a training aid for surgery had “improved accuracy” in students’ practice.

As well as improving pass rates and accuracy of practice, further studies in the use of medical VR have demonstrated it reduces anxiety and stress in many medical students and trainees. One study found that 68% of nursing and 58% of medical interns had reported that VR-based training has significantly reduced their anxiety about occupational needlestick or sharp injuries (NSI) prevention.

In schools and colleges, the use of VR has been trialled across a variety of subjects and age-groups. Immersive classrooms allow students to engage with and interact with topics they are learning about, and has been proven to have a wealth of positive effects on helping children and young people to not only retain information, but also enjoy their studies. 

And it’s in this enjoyment that we must focus if we are to really tackle the medical education gap, and help more young people, students, graduates and current employees feel motivated by a desire to take on roles in the NHS in the long-term. 

You might also like: Big data is our friend – here’s how it can help level the playing field in education


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