VR firm to urgently retrain 15,000 NHS workers to cope with coronavirus

A British virtual learning start-up plans to retrain more than 15,000 NHS nurses, doctors, cleaners and porters over the next two weeks to help them deal with an expected deluge of coronavirus cases.

Virti, a Bristol-based virtual and augmented reality firm with offices in Texas and California, said it was in talks with NHS trusts in south-west England to rapidly instruct medical and support staff on how to protect themselves from Covid-19.

The company has already trained roughly 14,000 health workers in the US and expects to train 50,000 more over the next fortnight, having “significantly” cut its prices for healthcare providers during the pandemic.

It comes as the NHS scrambles to increase its intensive care capacity, with more than 60,000 retired doctors and nurses being urged to return, academic researchers being called back to service and final year medical students graduating early to pitch in.

Dr Alex Young, Virti’s chief executive and a former NHS surgeon, said: “The US and UK are mobilising groups that wouldn’t normally be exposed to frontline patients… the problem is, they’ve been out of practice and they need to be quickly upskilled.

“Healthcare providers are finding it incredibly difficult to scale their traditional face-to-face training to meet the updated guidelines. Frontline staff need to be trained up quite quickly to put on the protective equipment..”

“One of doctors’ big fears is operating beyond their limitations in high risk environments where they could be infected, and then passing that on to their own family members. The huge amount of stress and anxiety is really causing concern.”

Virti sells software for quickly creating and managing interactive training programmes, from simple video questionnaires on mobile phones to full VR simulations. Its system can track trainees’ attention and performance, including by tracking their body language and eye movement via their phones or VR headsets. 

The company has received seed funding of around $2m (£1.7m) and was backed by the NHS Innovation Accelerator, a state-funded business programme which is now also racing to apply new technologies to the current crisis.

Traditionally medical training is done in person, with role-play, mannequins and demonstrations by experienced staff. But that requires training staff to be continually occupied, and raises the risk of trainees spreading disease to each other by gathering them in one space.

By contrast, virtual lessons only need to be produced once and can then be taken repeatedly. Virti says that its lessons are 90pc cheaper per person per day than the most realistic forms of physical training, and claims to have reduced training costs for its customers by an average of 33pc.

Dr Alec Snow, an intensive care and anaesthetic registrar at the Royal United Hospitals trust in Bath, who has worked for Virti in the past to produce training videos, said that his hospital had been conducting face-to-face training “non-stop” for the last two weeks.

“A lot of us have been cancelling annual leave, and I will be working through my parental leave. We’re all just trying to make ourselves available,” he said.

“There is a huge appetite and willingness from other staff groups to help, but the skills between specialisms are vastly different, and the skills that are needed for managing these patients are quite specialised in themselves.”

The NHS has told all staff who go near a potential coronavirus patient to wear surgical masks, aprons, gloves and eye protection, while those performing risky procedures must wear respirators and long disposable gowns.  

Patients with the most serious cases may need to be anaesthetised, put on a ventilator, fitted with a catheter, given a specialised intravenous drip or laboriously turned over onto their front while still asleep in order to improve oxygen flow. 

Dr Snow said that Virti’s technology would be “very useful”, adding: “The real challenge with this epidemic is maintaining safety for everyone and not cross-infecting staff… if we lose our staff then our ability to manage the outbreak will be extremely hampered.”

Doctors and nurses may also find it hard to communicate with patients while wearing protective gear, and may unintentionally alarm or intimidate them. One of Virti’s simulations puts trainees in the position of a coronavirus patient, surrounded by medical staff in masks and gowns. 

Virti’s planned 15,000 NHS trainees include retired staff who are returning to work as well as existing staff who need to switch specialisms or absorb new guidelines. Dr Young said he plans to deploy the technology in the South West first before expanding it if it works well.

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