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06/03/2016 10:12 am ET Updated Aug 23, 2016

Virtual Reality Lets Med Students Experience What It’s Like To Be 74

This could be empathy 2.0 for the average med student, who is 24.

Elder care is about to become much more empathetic. 

Embodied Labs has come up with a new virtual reality program called “We Are Alfred,” which allows young medical students to feel what it’s like to be an elderly individual experiencing audio and visual problems.

“[Medical students] are usually in their early 20s and not experiencing those kinds of challenges yet, so we decided to create something that would give them the experience of what it might be like to go through the aging process,” Carrie Shaw, the program’s creator and master's student in biomedical visualization told University of Illinois at Chicago, where she studies.

"We Are Alfred" uses a virtual reality headset, headphones and a hand-tracking device to immerse users in live-action story from the perspective of the 74-year-old man named Alfred. The story consists of six, seven-minute scenes that span from a spilling wine to waiting in a doctor’s office all as Alfred, who has audio and visual impairments.

For instance, in this scene called "Happy Birthday Song," the user sees a large, dark patch in the middle of the screen, which is designed to resemble macular degeneration — the leading cause of vision loss for those 55 and older, according to The American Macula Degeneration Foundation. The incurable disease affects more than 10 million Americans, which is more than cataracts and glaucoma combined.

“We wanted something that was as accurate to the experience of somebody discovering that they have an impairment, their family confronting them about it and then them having to go act upon that discovery,” Ryan Lebar, Embodied Labs’s director said in the below video the lab published on YouTube. “What would the implications be when the doctor says, ‘You’re going to have this for the rest of your life’?”

Another story within the simulation called “Taking the Cognitive Test” deals with the disconnect that sometimes occurs between a young doctor and an elderly patient. In this scene, Alfred (and the viewer) struggles with the test, not because there’s something wrong with Alfred’s cognitive abilities, but because he can't really hear what the doctor is asking him to do.

“I don’t remember what I’m supposed to do,” said one user after this scene in the below video. “I couldn’t really hear and I couldn’t see the test when he was describing it, so now I don’t really remember what I’m supposed to do.”

The team at Embodied Labs decided to create “We Are Alfred” due to the increase in population over the age of 64. According to the Administration for Community Living, in 2014, the percentage of Americans 65 and older accounted for about 15 percent of the population. By 2040, they estimate that that number will jump to about 25 percent.

The average medical student, on the other hand, is 24 years old.

Embodied Labs wants to simply bridge that gap.

“The project is focusing on comfort,” Eric Swirsky, a faculty adviser on the project and clinical assistant professor of biomedical and health information sciences told UIC. “It’s not curing, it’s not curative, it’s not even treatment-oriented. It’s about comforting and understanding where the patient is so that you can be with him.”

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