With Virtual Reality, Caregivers Can Become Patients

By | August 19, 2020

This article is part of our continuing Fast Forward series, which examines technological, economic, social and cultural shifts that happen as businesses evolve.

When Carrie Shaw was a freshman at the University of North Carolina, her mother, then 49, learned she had early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

“I was really scared of my mom’s diagnosis,” said Ms. Shaw, founder and chief executive of the Los Angeles-based Embodied Labs, an immersive educational technology company that uses virtual reality software to train health care professionals who work with older adults.

“I had that avoidance reaction to let the family figure it out without me,” she said. “So after I graduated, I joined the Peace Corps for a two-year stint in the Dominican Republic. I wanted to help and serve, but didn’t know how to in my own family.”

When she was 24, though, she faced it. Ms. Shaw, who has an undergraduate degree in public health, moved back to her family home in Winston-Salem, N.C., to be a full-time caregiver. “At that point, my mom had fairly advanced dementia, but it was so meaningful to be with her, and we built a special relationship,” she said.

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Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

Although they became closer, Ms. Shaw, now 32, was frustrated. “I struggled so much to imagine how my mom was perceiving the world around her,” she said.

In 2014, she returned to school to earn a Master of Science degree in biomedical visualization at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her thesis question: If we could step into the world of someone who is aging, could that help health care providers be more effective?

The evolving technology of virtual reality helped her answer that question. And four years ago, Ms. Shaw started Embodied Labs, alongside her sister, Erin Washington, who also cared for their mother, and is the chief product officer, and Thomas Leahy, a college classmate, now the firm’s chief technology officer.

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The company’s software allows users to peer into the body and mind of someone confronted with aging issues: cognitive decline such as Alzheimer’s, age-related vision and hearing loss, or neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and dementia.

The goal is to give users, including medical students, nurses, certified nursing assistants, assisted-living staff members and family caregivers, a better understanding of the challenges facing aging adults with these diseases or impairments through a first-person patient perspective.

Medical students, for example, can use the Embodied Labs V.R. headset and computer software for a 20-minute training program with 360-degree medical illustrations of changes in the brain structure and activity. They can also tap into an immersive visual experience in which the student virtually enters the world of Beatriz, a middle-age woman, as she advances through a decade of Alzheimer’s disease.

In another program, users embody Alfred, a 74-year-old man with high frequency hearing loss and age-related macular degeneration. The idea is to show that hearing and vision loss can make someone appear to have cognitive impairment although they do not.

The program experience is a day in Alfred’s life, including interaction with his doctor and his family. With the virtual reality goggles, the viewer’s eyesight is reduced by a dark spot in the middle of the visual field simulating macular degeneration. The diminishing vision makes eye contact, communication and easy tasks difficult and frustrating. The software also takes the user for a tour of the changes inside the retina as macular degeneration advances.

Embodied Labs’ latest program, launched in June, is the Eden Lab, which simulates experiences of older L.G.B.T. adults. “Misconceptions based on ageism, homophobia and transphobia can lead to health disparities that impact physical and mental health,” Ms. Shaw said.

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“What I try to do with Embodied Labs is to provide that understanding gap, so people can get to that point faster than I did,” she said. “It’s the convergence of aging, emerging technology and the need to transform our work force training methods in health and aging care.”

Start-up funds to develop the platform and the software came from a handful of angel investors, friends and family. In addition, Ms. Shaw competed for grants and no-interest loans and received $ 250,000 as the 2018 winner of the XR Education Prize Challenge funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

This year, the company received seed funding of $ 3.2 million from several venture capital funds, including the WXR Fund, which invests in women entrepreneurs and in the next wave of computing.

“The opportunities for immersive technology in health care are vast and span telehealth, therapeutics and diagnostics, training and more,” said Martina Welkhoff, co-founder and managing partner of the WXR Fund.

“Humans instinctively communicate and learn in 3-D, so immersive technology is particularly powerful in complex, high-stakes systems such as health care,” she said.

The company sells a kit of hardware plus a software license to over 100 subscribers, including senior living communities like Benedictine Health System and Front Porch; GreatCall, which sells senior cellphones, medical alert systems and mobile medical alerts; as well as over 40 universities and medical schools; and government aging agencies. Ms. Shaw estimates subscription revenues of $ 1 million this year.

“The Embodied Labs technology puts you into the shoes of the patient and you also see what the disease is going to look like over time,” said Mary Furlong, a consultant on health care and longevity marketing. “It’s not just a science project; it is a viable market,” she said. “What’s striking about Carrie’s work is that she can train people in call centers, train people in senior housing and in home-care multilevel channels that makes a business work.”

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At GreatCall, based in San Diego, 1,500 employees, including 1,200 call center customer service employees, have been trained with Embodied Labs’ programs. “With their V.R. technology, we’re able to put our employees in a module where they can experience what our customer is experiencing,” said Lynn Herrick, the chief operating officer. “We have found major changes — increased empathy toward customers and increased confidence in ability to support the customer, who is generally a senior using one of our products.”

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Credit…Embodied Labs

Ms. Herrick said she had used the module to understand what her mother-in-law, who has Alzheimer’s disease, was going through. “We were struggling as a family to deal with it,” she said. “After my husband and I experienced what the patient is feeling and saw how the brain changes when Alzheimer’s starts to happen, our patience and our understanding of what she was experiencing changed dramatically overnight. I realized, for instance, that this is how I would want someone to talk to me if I have Alzheimer’s.”

Ms. Shaw said she realized that immersive technology was changing rapidly and that staying on top of it was challenging. “The platform where we are starting is the first bridge,” she said. “The technology can improve our health, not just in training, but in wellness and in therapy in everyday ways.”

Ms. Shaw’s mother died the month Embodied Labs launched. She was 61. “As I am building this company, I think of my mom all the time,” Ms. Shaw said. “It would have been wonderful if she could have put on goggles that would have helped her do art, or physical therapy, in a fun way that would have extended her own abilities. I’m aging myself. I always ask: What is the world we want to create that we ourselves are aging into?”

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