This project engaged some of the workforce of Spinal Life Australia (personal support workers, peer support workers, allied health professionals and volunteers) to implement Virtual Reality in supporting clients and members in three parts of regional Queensland.
Spinal Life Australia (SLA) is a leading provider of advocacy, therapy and in-home personal support for people with spinal cord injury. With ‘Virtually Here’, SLA is trialling the benefits of virtual reality service delivery.
Like many non-for-profit organisations working in the disability sector, distribution of resources is a key issue. For SLA, based in Queensland with a remit across a vast region, the challenge is always to provide a quality training and learning experience in geographically remote locations. Managing a spinal cord injury or trauma is a complex exercise requiring good understanding the structure, systems and function of human anatomy. The effectiveness of personal support workers and peer support workers is hampered by training logistics and distribution constraints. Without significant numbers of interactions, both workers and NDIS clients can feel excluded from the activities designed for their benefit.
SLA identified VR as having the potential to transform service delivery to a remote and distributed workforce. Observing the success that medical researchers have had using VR in clinical trials (e.g. as a psychosomatic pain relief mechanism), the team saw an opportunity to pioneer VR in the disability sector working with spinal injury or trauma.
The idea of SLA’s “Virtually Here” trial was to upskill staff with awareness of current Extended Reality (AR/VR/MR) capabilities and inform decision making around how to deploy new immersive technologies. The focus was on personal support care workers who were helping clients manage spinal injury or trauma.
By focusing on such a specific application of VR, SLA hoped to contribute valuable learnings to the sector, not just in terms of the VR experience possibilities, but also toward the logistical considerations in deploying the VR experience in rural and remote areas. This project demonstrated how VR can fill the gap in areas where travel is cost-prohibitive to deliver effective face-to-face training.
SLA facilitated a roll-out of greater support offered to personal support workers through online training. Better understanding of how on the ground workers and NDIS clients could benefit from VR training simulations and immersive technology in general will inform education design and roll out decisions.
The VR experience, envisaged by SLA, is one where the human body can be interrogated and explored in new ways. Immersive interactive medical simulations could allow the VR user to connect with the very nature of spinal injury in a profound new way beyond the capacity of books and screen-based material to deliver. The rapid acceleration of Extended Reality (AR/VR/MR) technologies means that such simulations, previously cost-prohibitive both to produce and to experience, are moving within reach of the most remote and small-scale service provider.
SLA believes this is the first time that VR has been evaluated in the context of spinal injury or trauma care. The trial gave the organisation data to support purchasing of VR training material and the necessary equipment for use throughout Queensland.
In initial workshops, feedback was obtained from potential users of the “Virtually Here” technology - the Peer Support Team who regularly visit Spinal Injuries Unit at Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital. These workers all have spinal cord injuries themselves and provide one-on-one peer support to NDIS clients and their families.
SLA received strong indications that VR-based training would be both engaging and useful. A key insight was that the VR market has matured to the point where a cost-effective kit can be assembled and transported around a laptop.
The biggest roadblock to-date has been the relative immaturity of the VR medical application market. SLA made the decision to focus on off-the-shelf content for the trial and so has relied on the availability of fit-for-purpose content. While many vendors of traditional screen based titles have VR editions in development, the products identified as best suiting the needs of anatomy training in the context of the SLA workforce were not available during the early trials.
To incorporate a new medium such as VR into operations for an organisation such as SLA comes with a degree of risk. The project team, having to juggle day to day responsibilities alongside ‘Virtually Here’, have a stronger appreciation of what critical factors go into trialling the use of new technology and the resource allocation required for service development.