Innovation corner: A glimpse at dementia
Virtual reality provides medical students a greater understanding and sense of empathy for patients
efore entering the Virtual Dementia Tour, you must suit up. Goggles mimic the loss of vision caused by macular degeneration, glaucoma or cataracts. Gloves create a decreased range of motion and sensitivity. Shoe inserts provide the pain of peripheral neuropathy. Finally, a headset blasting an array of loud noises — a door slamming, a maniacal laugh, honking horns — is placed on your head. Now you may enter.
Fourth-year medical students on their geriatric rotations experience the Virtual Dementia Tour thanks to a partnership between the Malcom Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center, or GRECC, and the UF College of Medicine’s department of aging and geriatric research. The sensitivity training program, produced by Georgia-based nonprofit Second Wind Dreams, was created to build a greater understanding of dementia and a sense of empathy for those experiencing symptoms.
Carmen Fernandez, PsyD, associate director for education and evaluation for the GRECC, said the Virtual Dementia Tour provides a holistic look at the conditions many aging patients deal with daily.
“I’ve worked with dementia since the 1990s, and I thought I knew dementia in and out. I didn’t know what I didn’t know until I experienced the Virtual Dementia Tour,” she said. “We’re giving students five minutes in the shoes of someone with cognitive impairments and other conditions that can accompany dementia, and they come out of it with a deeper understanding.”
Fourth-year medical student Gabriel Daniels said the sensory deprivation the training creates left a great impact on him. After entering the Virtual Dementia Tour, Daniels was given instructions to complete a simple task or two. He couldn’t hear the instructions, however, over the commotion being pumped into his headphones.
“I felt slightly reassured when the other participant walked in, but then they didn’t know what to do either, so my hopes were dashed again,” he said. “Very seldom have I experienced all of my senses being deprived, yet somehow my eyes are still open.”
Daniels said the experience made him reconsider the amount and quality of care he was giving to patients on his geriatric rotation.
“I learned this is a patient population I have to plan to give more time to,” he said. “I have to assume they need me to repeat things. I can’t just take a nod or a ‘yes’ to assume my patient understood me. I can imagine a person with dementia or hearing loss nodding just from the fatigue of not being able to understand what’s being said.”
Daniels said the Virtual Dementia Tour provided a window into a world that his coursework could not.
“To be immersed in the experiences of someone’s trials and tribulations is much different than reading about it,” he said.