Oak Ridge scientists develop VR game to promote flu shots
Picture this: You’re walking through a fast-food place, the lunch crowd ambling around you, queuing up at the counter to place an order, waiting to receive their sandwiches. You don't feel sick, but you cough and don't manage to catch the cough in your hands or the crook of your elbow.
Then you see them. Little green particles float through the air. Those little green particles are flu viruses, and they settle on an elderly person. You realize now you're suffering from a minor case of the flu and you've just watched as the viruses from you infect your neighbor.
In real life you cannot see viruses. They are too small. But in virtual reality simulations, invisible things can be made visible. Scientists and public health officials hope that virtual reality, commonly shortened to VR, will help make public health issues come alive for people.
How researchers used VR to study vaccination
The restaurant experience is one example of the VR scenarios that researchers at the Oak Ridge Associated Universities consortium and their partners at the University of Georgia tested as part of a recently published study. They wanted to know whether immersing people in a VR experience would influence patient attitudes toward seasonal flu vaccination.
Annual flu vaccination is recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but few adults get vaccinated. In 2017, the CDC estimated that only 33.6% of 18- to 49year-old people received a flu shot for the 2016-17 season. Public health officials said that this is likely due to gaps in communication. Many healthy people do not understand the risk that even minor cases of the flu pose to other people.
“People 18 to 49 years old usually don’t experience health complications,” said Karen Carera, a project manager and staff scientist with Oak Ridge Associated Universities and coauthor of the study.
She explained that children, the elderly and immune-compromised people are all put at risk when healthy people don’t vaccinate.
People who flu shots participated in the study. They were randomly assigned to one of four groups: video, text, pamphlet or VR. The group in the VR group reported experiencing “spatial presence,” the sensation of “being there” within the simulation. The participants who felt this way were more concerned about spreading the flu and expressed more intention to vaccinate.
“Virtual reality has the potential to bring things to life in a way that otherwise can’t be done,” said Glen Nowak, study coauthor and director of the Grady Center for Health and Risk Communication. He explained that this is important for promoting health literacy.
Did VR inspire people to get flu shots?
But intentions are not actions. The study did not track whether participants got a flu vaccine, so it’s unclear if anyone changed their behavior in response to VR. “It would be interesting to come back to those participants in three months or a month to see if they actually did go and get a flu shot,” said Kim Hieftje, deputy director of the Yale Center for Health & Learning Games. She emphasized that why people fail to vaccinate is as important as motivating them to vaccinate.
“Maybe your hesitancy to getting a flu shot is because you don’t know where to even begin to get it.” Hieftje said.
VR could try to address some of those barriers by linking people to free or lowcost vaccines and transport to clinics.
“It could be that I don’t have access, I don’t have $20 to get the shot or that I’m 75 and can’t get there.”Hieftje said.
While the study did show that people felt more connected to flu transmission it didn’t show VR experience was more effective than traditional health communication. People changed their attitudes at roughly the same rates whether they were informed through video, pamphlet, text or VR.
“VR is not magic,” said Susan Persky, head of the National Institute's of Health Immersive Virtual Environment Test Unit.
While VR can create the sense of “being there” or empathy with other people, Persky said that it is still an emerging technology. Those working in VR are still learning how to make the best experiences and content for the new medium. Health communication is also incredibly challenging in all media.
“You never know when you have the content quite right, so you have to test it,” said Persky. “Really, VR has the same problems of all health communication. It’s just in a different format.”
The study authors hope that eventually VR will be a tool for doctors, public health officials and researchers to communicate difficult health topics to the public. They said that the research was in very early phases and has a lot of kinks to work out before it’s ready for widespread use.
“One of the big challenges is being able to understand how medicines work or diseases play out,” said Nowak, “I think that’s where VR may have a lot more potential.”
In the waiting room of the future, you might just be able to play through how you caught the flu in VR. After you wipe down the headset, that is.
Source: Knoxville News Sentinel
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Published February 14, 2020