An Edinburgh university is to use virtual reality to help train the next generation of paramedics – by immersing them in real-life medical situations.

Students at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh have been using VR goggles as part of an ‘immersive learning’ opportunity to guide them through emergency maternity scenarios.

The university is leading the development of interactive programmes to help the students deal with challenging real-life situations – before they enter the workforce.

The use of VR is proving a big hit with students on the BSc Paramedic Science course as they learn to navigate both normal and extreme situations in the safety of a virtual space.

Having developed a bespoke programme for use at the University, QMU students are the first to experience the pressure of decision-making in VR in relation to maternity complications.

The ability to make decisions in real-time without negative consequences is improving students’ knowledge and confidence before they deal with critical situations in the real world.

Through a VR headset, students can be immediately transported into a relatively normal or challenging environment, which any paramedic could face. Lecturers can lead students through a simulation, transporting them in a flash, into, for example, a bedroom of a modern flat where a young women is suffering labour complications. 

Students can interact with patients by observing, asking questions, using equipment and processing information in a virtual situation. They have the chance to make mistakes, learn to navigate situations and correct their actions in a safe space. The VR scenarios are ensuring students are better equipped than ever before to move forward into their real-life placements with professional paramedic teams. 

Alexander Williams, a paramedic lecturer at Queen Margaret University, who has led the development of the VR project with commercial partner Virtual Reality Empathy Platform Ltd (VREP), said: “It’s not only an exciting way to learn, it’s the perfect training ground for a paramedic student. It helps to improve the learning experience and patient safety. By supporting students through different patient scenarios, we are allowing them to learn at a pace that’s right for them and to build their understanding of different environments that paramedics work in. They also get to feel the stress that can be involved in certain situations, but to experience that in the safety of the virtual classroom.”

He added: “While VR is now used in some areas of education, this is the first VR programme which focuses on real-time decision-making in relation to maternity complications, rather than just skills development. In this VR experience, the student is the key decision-maker in the woman’s care before a hospital admission. They can practise high risk and low-incidence scenarios, so they are best prepared to make the right decision, at the right time, when they face them in real life.”

Lisa Fernie, a second year paramedic science student at Queen Margaret University, trialed the technology with guidance from her lecturer. She said: “I was totally amazed at how immersive and realistic the experience felt. It was so exciting, as I’d never used VR technology before. 

“It adds a different dimension to our learning process and is particularly helpful to those of us who are visual learners. Using VR alongside skills classes will help to strengthen muscle memory, making us more confident and competent in dealing with different types of scenarios – some of which we may not come across on a regular basis, but which could be life and death situations in the real world.”  

Student Bronte Haywood added: “The first time I experienced the VR package, it was slightly disorienting because it was so real and I got so invested in the scenario that when someone spoke to me outside the VR headset, I got a fright. Being in the scenario gave me the feeling of actually being in a patient’s house – needing to be spatially aware, learning to communicate with the patient, and being aware of the pressure of what could happen next.” 

“Role play with other students is good, but these VR packages will provide real life scenarios, allowing you to visualise, and then discuss situations with peers and lecturers afterwards. It helps to identify the problems that you might come across and gives a sense of how you would react. This provides lots to reflect on individually and as a class.”

Lecturer Alexander, who has worked as a paramedic for five years, has been involved in every stage of development of the VR packages, and has created all of the scenarios. He has worked with Virtual Reality Empathy Platform, software developer Visual Lane, Age Concern and Age Scotland, as well as IT staff, administrators and health technicians at the University to get the product to the stage it’s at now. The team is now keen to further develop the VR packages to provide improved learning experiences for a wider range of health and social care students and professionals.

Having developed and trialed the VR packages over the last year, Queen Margaret University will be running a range of VR scenarios with students on the BSc Paramedic Science course from February 2024. Students will be able to experience dealing with a pregnant women with pre-eclampsia, a female with maternal sepsis, a baby with shoulder distortia dystocia (stuck in birth canal) and a woman with postpartum hemorrhaging. 

Lisa added: “I am really looking forward to using the technology more – now and in the future – to learn how to handle different medical and behavioural situations. VR certainly has the potential to assist us in navigating a whole range of different scenarios that we will face as paramedics working in the field, and it’s taken our classroom learning to a whole new level.”