While the COVID-19 pandemic is causing shifts in the global economy and lifestyle, it’s likely that the effects on human psychology will linger. It could become second nature for people to recoil from physical contact like shaking hands, and connecting virtually might be preferred over in-person. As people seek to avoid unnecessary commutes and interactions, healthcare services are looking to shift from traditional bricks-and-mortar settings to online formats like telemedicine and online healthcare reimbursement. As the paradigms for interactions shift, it opens opportunities to further explore this technology.


Companies are already witnessing the pandemic’s effects on clinical trial recruitment. Study sites are concerned about COVID-19-related interruptions, and patient willingness to continue in trials is declining. Clinical trial participation is already a daunting experience. Patients fear the unfamiliar, and the consent process often fails to allay fears or even give a clear idea about what to expect. The current norm of social distancing and quarantines will further impact the ability to engage patients. Dropout rates across clinical studies have been increasing for the past few years (19.1% in 2019, from 15.3% in 2012), and this worrisome trend of dropouts and impaired recruitments is expected to escalate.


To address dropouts and retention rates, healthcare organizations have been turning to patient-focused primary research and simulations. While primary research may not produce deep insights, trial simulations in realistic test environments offer a truly immersive patient experience. However, simulations come with their fair share of challenges, primarily around logistics, travel or time commitment. Furthermore, the current pandemic situation—with social distancing and quarantines—has caused hospitals to redefine priorities and push non-essential activities like simulations to the back burner.


This is a crucial inflection point in our move to meet patient needs; it's important now more than ever to ensure that people feel comfortable, secure and heard. Regulatory authorities recognize the potential destruction that COVID-19 might have on clinical trials. With patient safety kept paramount, they’re encouraging more practical approaches, leaning heavily on shifting in-person visits to telemedicine platforms. Virtual reality is gaining a lot of traction: If you have kids between the ages of 5 and 20, you’ve likely heard about putting on a pair of goggles and navigating hand controllers to explore a whole new world, from learning how to play tennis to becoming a National Geographic explorer while canoeing through the fjords in Norway.


But VR is no longer limited to gaming. With the industry expected to reach $6.1 billion globally by 2025, in healthcare alone, VR can teach doctors to perform complex medical procedures, such as spine surgery, in a safe environment; facilitate greater empathy for patients living with autism or visual impairments by recreating their world virtually for caregivers and healthcare workers; and relieve anxiety and pain for PTSD and cancer patients.


Learning from existing healthcare VR applications can help gather patient input on clinical trial protocols. For example, imagine putting on VR goggles and entering a virtual 3-D hospital, being greeted at the front desk by a receptionist who provides you your paperwork, then guided to a consultation with a physician, who walks you through filling out the informed consent form, counsels you on an upcoming procedure or provides training on a medical device. VR allows all of this to happen in an interactive environment, where the participant can pick up tools (iPad with the IFC form, medical device) and use them to perform the required tasks. Experiencing a trial virtually helps allay patients’ fears, resulting in increased trial participation. VR also provides deeper patient insights (gathered through the immersion of the patient into a realistic environment and observing what they will do rather than what they say they will do) and convenience (patients interact with physicians and physicians get training without leaving the comfort of home).


There are considerations that need to be kept in mind when developing VR experiences for patients. Onboarding procedures, from learning how to use VR goggles and controllers to making sure the physical space around the patient is free of hazards, will help patients come to grips with interacting in a virtual environment. And although the COVID pandemic naturally lends itself to increased virtual interactions, when sending VR kits to participants, remember to take precautions, such as providing appropriate disinfection instructions.


As we all settle into the new normal, it’s hard to imagine the future ever being the same. Businesses that rely on social gathering, such as restaurants, hotels, theaters, and sports and conference venues, will take a devastating hit. With schools closing, families will need to adapt to homeschooling children. Those taking care of elderly relatives will face tremendous stress. But maybe there are lessons we can all gather that will make us a stronger and healthier society. Perhaps our healthcare systems will be optimized, with more efficient responses to outbreaks and increased virtual access to services, and we’ll find creative ways to socialize and conduct business by shifting our interactions online. Maybe many of us will gain more appreciation for the everyday pleasures that we took for granted. After all, if we want to see the rainbow, we’ve got to put up with the rain.