Nurses Week 2016: When Will Avatars Join Nurses Week Celebrations?

Nurses Week is a great opportunity to celebrate all of the fantastic work we do for patients. I often find myself pausing at this time of the year to appreciate just how different – and in most cases better – our working practices, processes and outcomes are compared to just 10 or so years ago. Technology has been a great enabler in improving the workflow of nurses today, but I wanted to share some thoughts on the future of nursing in this blog and how we might be welcoming avatars and the world of virtual reality to Nurses Week celebrations in the near future.

Better Training, Overcoming Global Shortage of Nurses

There are challenges ahead for the nursing community, driven by many of the same factors affecting the entire healthcare ecosystem, ranging from an increasingly ageing population to pressure on budgets. When I met with nurses from across Europe in Brussels earlier this year at Microsoft in Health’s Empowering Health event, two key themes really came to the fore:

  • First, there was a call for improved training for nurses to help them better understand and benefit from technologies such as 2 in 1 tablets and advanced Electronic Medical Record systems;
  • Second, there was a discussion around what technologies might help overcome the potential of a global shortage of nurses in the future. A 2015 World Health Organisation report stated that ‘a fundamental mismatch exists between supply and demand in both the global and national health labour markets, and this is likely to increase due to prevalent demographic, epidemiologic and macroeconomic trends.’

Looking ahead I see a real opportunity to integrate avatars and virtual reality into the nursing environment which will not only train students to be better nurses but also deliver better patient care with improved workflows at the bedside

Virtual Reality To Deliver Safe, Effective Teaching

Training is a fundamental part of a nurse’s development, and that rings true for both those in nursing school and more experienced nurses learning new technologies and procedures. Virtual reality technology can play a major role in helping nurses to better deal with a range of scenarios and technologies.

For example, if I want to teach a nurse how to perform a specific procedure using virtual reality, I’m able to present the trainee with an avatar on a screen that could be any combination of gender, height, weight and medical condition. And whilst the procedure is being undertaken I’m then able to trigger a wide range of responses from the avatar patient to help the nurse learn how to deal with different scenarios – all in a safe and controlled manner that can be monitored and assessed for post-session feedback.

Similarly, if a nurse is required to understand how to use a new piece of technology to improve their workflow, such as working with an upgrade to an EMR system on a 2 in 1 tablet, virtual reality can help too by simulating these new systems. In a virtual setting nurses are not only able to familiarise themselves with new processes but can provide feedback on issues around workflow before they are launched into a live patient environment.

If I think of how my training was delivered at nursing school there was plenty of ‘chalk and board’-style teaching and a lot of time spent in a classroom using limited resources such as manikins. Today, an infinite number of student nurses can learn remotely using virtual reality and avatar patients, reinforcing knowledge and improving workflows on a range of mobile devices. This is particularly useful too for countries where educators are in short supply but nursing demand may be high.

Avatars Ask ‘How Are You Feeling Today’?

A recurring question in my mind is how can we make better use of the fantastic expertise and knowledge of today’s nurses to continue to deliver great care to patients. In the face of a shortage of nurses we should explore how avatars on a bed-side screen or 2 in 1 device might be able to take away the burden of some of the more routine daily tasks such as asking patients if they have any unusual symptoms.

Patient answers could be fed back into the EMR which would trigger either further questions from the avatar or, in more serious cases, an alert for intervention by a human nurse.

When I talk to my peers within healthcare there are some obvious and real concerns about the lack of emotion delivered by avatars. The rise of chat bots has made for interesting news recently and I see this kind of artificial intelligence combined with a great avatar experience delivering something approaching human emotions such as sympathy for routine tasks. We should also recognise that an avatar can potentially speak an unlimited number of languages too, helping all patients get a better understanding of their condition.

As nurses I hope our community embraces discussion and ideas around the use of virtual reality and avatars – I’ve talked through just a couple of scenarios where I see improvements to training and care delivery but I’d be interested to hear how you think they could help you do your job better. And perhaps one day in the near future, avatars will be celebrating Nurses Week with us too.