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NHS launches groundbreaking XR training programme



England has become the first country in the world to launch clinical training in perinatal mental health using extended reality (XR) technology.

A groundbreaking patient avatar has been developed by Health Education England in partnership with Fracture Reality that allows healthcare learners to expand their skills interacting with people with perinatal mental health problems via a series of instructor-driven simulations.

Using a headset, learners interact with virtual patient Stacey, who is directed by an instructor and run as a simulation on Fracture Reality’s JoinXR platform.

The technology can be used in augmented reality (AR) where learners are able to practice in their own clinical setting.

It is also accessible in virtual reality (VR), offering students the chance to experience interacting with Stacey in her own home or other clinical settings.

Steve Barclay, Health and Social Care Secretary, said:

“Technology is transforming the way we deliver care for patients and train the NHS workforce.

“This project shows how we can improve training for staff using interactive technology which creates realistic simulations of clinical settings to help trainee GPs and other medical staff understand complex patient needs, for example replicating face to face conversations with new or expecting mums who may have mental health challenges around birth.

“Learning in this immersive way can prepare our future workforce to provide the best possible care for patients.”

Perinatal mental health conditions affect between 10 and 20 per cent of mothers in the UK.

Although these problems are often mild and last for a short period, some can present as severe mental illness and without the right immediate support and care, can pose a high risk to parents and their babies.

Treatment for perinatal mental health conditions relies on healthcare professionals being able to engage and communicate effectively with patients to determine the severity of their condition and make necessary interventions.

However, there are often limited opportunities for learners to practice these skills in a safe learning environment where they can practice and learn from the experience.

The new project allows them to have realistic and natural conversations with Stacey, asking her about her symptoms and making plans to get her the right support.

The scenarios represent the types of real-life conversations health professionals may have with perinatal mental health patients – but in Stacey’s case, she is able to present to anyone who meets her in a standardised approach that enables the learner to reflect and debrief.

It has been designed to enable students to practice their skills in a safe environment until they are able to take the skills they have learnt into a real-life clinical setting.

The Centre for Immersive Technologies at the University of Leeds has evaluated the training experience.

More than 100 participants, ranging from GP and mental health nurse trainees, as well as students training to become doctors or aspiring to be clinical psychologists, have taken part.

The study shows that this new immersive method of training is highly usable and useful for learners and educators.

Participants have demonstrated significant improvements in cognitive and emotional understanding after undertaking the simulation.

Meanwhile, GPs in training reported a reduction in anxiety surrounding perinatal mental health consultations while mental health nursing students had increased motivation and felt more prepared to pursue a career specialising in perinatal care.

Almost four out of five (79 per cent) learners said they preferred this simulation training over traditional approaches.

Other universities can now be invited to trial the technology with their own students.

The project has been supported by HEE’s Technology Enhanced Learning team which has managed the relationships between XR experts and suppliers, and will enable access for NHS organisations to the XR technology required to deliver the training.

Rebecca Burgess-Dawson, National Clinical Lead for Mental Health at Health Education England, said:

“Stacey provides students and learners with a wealth of scenarios that they may encounter while they are working in a clinical setting, all in a natural and realistic way.

“The potential impact that she has on perinatal mental health training is enormous and she will have a real benefit for learners in gaining the practice and skills they need for future patients they treat.”

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