Tapping virtual reality tech to reduce death of infants

Virtual reality technology
Virtual reality technology is increasingly being used in the medical field. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that approximately one million children die in their first month of life in low-and middle-income countries (LMICs). Two-thirds — about 700,000 — of these children, including those in Kenya, could be saved if the health workers have adequate training and resources to adopt and implement a newly improved virtual reality (VR) technology system.

In its quest to adopt and implement the new technology, Pathways for Prosperity Commission research group based in Oxford and Kenya, collected views from paediatricians, pre-service and in-service nurses and lecturers in universities in Nairobi, and compiled them in a paper called, ‘Virtual reality for medical and nursing training in low-and medium-income countries’.

The research shows that the potential for the use of the new low cost VR technology for conducting medical simulation training in LMICs, could save hundreds of thousands of children’s lives.

The VR technology, the paper proposes, can be used as an alternative to face-to-face simulation training that create a highly realistic computer-based three-dimensional (3D) environment in which a student can learn. Trainees use a head-mounted display and handheld controllers to allow them to interact with virtual objects.

“VR has been used in medical simulation training for many years but has traditionally been very expensive and requiring large machines that would be difficult to set up and maintain in LMICs,” the paper says.


However, the research notes that advances in computer technology have enabled a new generation of consumer-focused VR hardware that offers the potential for implementation in LMICs.

“Our research team based in Oxford and Kenya developed a VR training scenario for the Life Saving Instruction for Emergencies (LIFE) project,” says the report.

“We tested LIFE, VR with healthcare workers in Kenya to establish the potential feasibility and acceptability of low-cost VR for medical simulation training.”

The research notes that healthcare workers “were enthusiastic about the approach but the systems we tested had a number of technical limitations such as requiring powerful laptop computers and the installation of laser-tracking base stations that would limit scale up.”

However, newly announced hardware from major VR manufacturers appear to address these technical issues and are expected to continue to reduce the costs of devices, increasing the potential for wider adoption in LMICs.

The paper also shows that VR has been used in the military, and for surgical training for many years. But these first-generation VR simulators are very expensive and use large machines that would be difficult to set up and operate in an LMIC context.

However, recent innovations developed for the mobile phone industry, such as high-resolution displays and advanced graphics processing units (GPUs), have enabled a new kind of VR technology that could scale up simulation training at much lower costs in LMICs. Using these mobile phone components, the Oxford paper shows, companies such as HTC and Oculus have built a new generation of VR headsets that offer significant potential for improving medical simulation training.

This new VR technology was designed primarily for the entertainment industry and, more specifically, for the gaming industry. However, in recent years, research groups and start-up companies have begun to apply it for medical training and clinical practice.


“The use of VR in medical training has the potential to overcome barriers that exist with traditional face-to-face simulation sessions that require both the learner and trainers to be present in the same room,” the paper states.

Using VR over the internet, the research says, has the potential to connect students who are separated geographically from skilled trainers.

“This is especially important for places where it is not feasible to travel large distances for the sole purpose of training,” says the report.

Further, the new technology allows for skilled trainers to mentor and provide support in locations that would have otherwise been impossible to visit.

Universities in high-income countries are now using next-generation VR headsets to teach students various aspects of clinical medicine. And through LIFE, VR allows more health workers access to high-quality training and to overcome the challenge of dispersed medical and nursing training across Kenya – having developed a mobile and VR platform to teach health workers how to manage medical emergencies.

These hi-tech programmes have already been used to train more than 5,000 healthcare workers and 2,000 medical students across Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Sierra Leone and Myanmar.

VR is now part of the undergraduate medical training curriculum in medical schools in Nairobi, Kampala and Kigali, with prospects to spread it to other Africa countries, amongst other lower- and middle-income countries.

“We are continuing to work on new and expanded training scenarios for the LIFE platform that will be able to use these technologies to deliver high-quality simulation training at scale in LMICs,” the report states.