In BU Today, Sprague Martinez Explores the Future of VR in Social Work and Medicine

Interested faculty received a (pre-pandemic-and-social-distancing) demonstration of a virtual reality headset used by the Schools of Medicine and Social Work in a pilot program.
Interested faculty received a (pre-pandemic-and-social-distancing) demonstration of a virtual reality headset used by the Schools of Medicine and Social Work in a pilot program. Photo by Chris McIntosh
BUSSW’s Linda Sprague Martinez and Joseli Alonzo (SSW’20) talk to BU Today about how a new VR-based pilot course is teaching social work students and medical students to work together.

The following is an excerpt. Read the full story by BU Today‘s Rich Barlow here.

    Before choosing to be a doctor, Pablo Buitron de la Vega considered a career as a video game developer. As it turned out, life allowed him to blend both of his passions.

    With two colleagues, this semester de la Vega (SPH’16), a School of Medicine assistant professor of internal medicine, piloted a potential technology-based innovation to the BU curriculum. They taught aspiring doctors, physician assistants, and social workers to broach personal social matters that affect health—level of education, job status, income, housing situation—with their patients.

    Virtual patients.

    Offered a demonstration, this reporter, role-playing a School of Medicine student, dons a headset and finds himself in a Boston hospital room with an avatar patient named Aliza, an African American woman in a blue nightgown propped up on her bed. The vibrantly colored cityscape with the Prudential Center is visible behind her through the floor-to-ceiling window. Sunlight cuts a path across the floor. Your virtual hands, resembling a mannequin’s, clasp your fingers when you hit a trigger on handheld controllers, allowing you to pick up a virtual touch tablet containing questions:

    What is your living situation today? Within the past 12 months, the food you bought just didn’t last and you didn’t have the money to get more—often true, sometimes true, never true? Do you need food for tonight? Do you have trouble paying for medicines? Are you currently unemployed and looking for a job? Are you interested in more education?

    Touching the screen by each question with a virtual finger checks off the answers, just like a real tablet.

    After Aliza—voiced from another room by de la Vega’s collaborator Aliza Stern, a MED instructor and Physician Assistant Program director of didactic education—answers the questions, clicking a green button on the screen with your virtual finger changes the scene. You’re transported to another room to meet virtual Linda, a School of Social Work student (role-played by third team member Linda Sprague Martinez, a School of Social Work associate professor and chair of SSW’s macro department). “Normally,” virtual Linda says, “you would just tell me about your patient, and then I would help you to think about the best way to connect them with resources,” based on Aliza’s needs in the questionnaire.

    De la Vega, Stern, Sprague Martinez, and 15 students from MED and SSW spent the semester piloting this technology and its approach to learning. The project had expertise and grant support from Digital Learning & Innovation (DL&I), BU’s incubator for novel enhancements to education, which connected the team to a New York company that custom-built the software for the pilot project.

    Students in the pilot were able to “meet” in the virtual hospital while sitting miles apart on the Charles River and Medical Campuses. Foregoing a commute to the latter to hook up with her MED peers was a welcome convenience for Joseli Alonzo (SSW’20), who says that—aside from a slight headache after using the headset and the initial disorientation of entering and exiting VR mode—she found the collaboration with MED peers invaluable.

    A screenshot of a doctor's office in a VR simulation

    A screenshot of a doctor's office in a VR simulation
    A virtual reality exercise that was piloted for students in the Schools of Medicine and Social Work. Images courtesy of Pablo Buitron de la Vega


    “I plan on working in healthcare settings, so learning how to collaborate in multidisciplinary teams is a must for me,” Alonzo says. The multiple interactions in the virtual reality scenarios—MED student interviews patient, SSW student and MED student debrief each other—were more useful than just sitting “in an actual classroom, where we were all seeing the same location and possibly hearing and noticing the same information of the patient,” she says. “We were not only physically separated across campuses, but also within the actual consultation.” []


    Read the full article on the BU Today website here: Real Doctors. Real Social Workers. Virtual Patients.