Virtual reality to add a new element of training to the College of Pharmacy

More than just a science fiction dream, virtual reality is coming to USF’s College of Pharmacy in an effort to help enhance student education.

Dr. Kevin Sneed, the dean of the College of Pharmacy, will help introduce the concept of virtual reality to pharmacology students this fall.

“I’m always trying to think about ways to become more imaginative and more creative for our students and patients,” Sneed said. “Virtual reality was something I began exploring more than a year ago.”

The new virtual reality equipment on campus will allow for pharmacology students to analyze the effects of medicine within a patient’s body and help communicate its process, according to Sneed.

“If a patient is starting a new medication, for example, we can show them using this virtual reality technology what the medication is going to do when it enters the body and how it is going to affect their organs,” Sneed said. “They’ll understand what the medication is doing on a level bigger than just telling them verbally what’s happening or have them read it on a piece of paper.”

Sneed said students will be able to select a large variety of scenarios to experience in virtual reality, allowing them to have a more “hands on” approach to their work.

“Work has been done to have very realistic human anatomy and physiology functions within the software students will be using,” Sneed said. “We have the capability today of being able to look at organ functions within the body, but what I intend to do moving into the future is begin to have an entire library of medication within virtual reality to show the patient’s activity inside of the body.”

Davina Devries, the learning and development facilitator at the USF College of Pharmacy, said she believes in the benefit virtual reality can bring to the classroom.

“Virtual reality does well, especially in the health care industry and education systems, giving students a safe place to practice without the actual threat of injuring a live person,” Devries said. “We can develop case-based scenarios where there’s high interaction levels between the student, the environment and the patient. Students would be able to learn more effectively.”

Students at the College of Pharmacy have been doing simulations for as long as the college has existed, according to Devries. However, technology has been limited until virtual reality became a more mainstream and accessible option for education.

Devries said virtual reality will allow for students to place themselves in multiple operating room roles without the risk of injuring a patient through lack of experiences.

“The research we’ve been looking at is that you walk into an operating room, and you can think about taking on the role that you’ll be playing in that room,” Devries said. “The great thing about virtual reality is you can have various members doing different things. You can have a doctor, a pharmacist and a nurse all working together at the same time in the virtual space.”

Shifting from more traditional forms of education to modern is necessary to stay up to date with the times, according to Sneed.

“Up until now, everything has been ‘Desktop Powerpoint’, as I like to call it,” Sneed said. “We used to ask people to look at a still image or to read some paragraphs and then try to imagine what’s happening inside of the body, but with virtual reality we can show people the reality of what’s happening. For those who are visual learners, it’ll help greatly.”

Sneed also said that he envisions technology advancing to a point where instructors will be able to host their lectures through virtual reality in the near future.

Devries said moving from still images on a screen to fully rendered 3D models allows for people to better understand what exactly is happening to their bodies. Students who prefer visual learning will also be able to take advantage of the technology.

“In the virtual world, we can allow students to see the body’s interactions right in front of them,” Devries said. “These are things that used to be static pictures on a page, but now with these immersive environments we can make them move in real time and show students how they actually work.”

Virtual reality is difficult to explain to those who are not “in the know” about new technologies, according to Devries. Many people view the equipment as more of a game, and less of a teaching tool.

“There are a lot of different ways that virtual reality can be used,” Devries said. “Many students think of it as just a game, and although we could incorporate some game-like elements into what we’re doing, it does not have to be like that. It’s more of a communal open space where you can actively interact with one another … it’s such a new technology in the education field that it’s hard to explain until it’s done right.”