A Pilot Study of the Impact of Virtually Embodying a Patient with a Terminal Illness


Compassionate end-of-life care matters deeply for patients and their caregivers, but studies continue to demonstrate ways in which physicians fall short. Despite specific training during medical school, many patients report lack of empathy in their providers with respect to end-of-life conversations. This is likely because empathy is simply hard to teach. Numerous activities have been tried to combat the decline in empathy during medical training with little to moderate success. However, virtual reality, which allows users to viscerally experience anything from another person’s point of view, could be a game changer for building empathy within medicine. This type of perspective-taking has previously shown to improve understanding, reduce biases, facilitate empathy, and promote prosocial behaviors. In this pilot study, virtual reality was used to allow students to “become a patient” virtually embodying their daily activities, symptoms, and interactions with caregivers. Using the Embodied Labs modules, first-year medical students were able to experience first-hand having a terminal illness, being told no further treatments are available and witnessing loved ones’ reactions. Data generated through surveys and reflections indicated a high level of place illusion, plausibility, and embodiment of users. This high level of immersion generated an increase in comfortability with talking about end-of-life issues, produced a better understanding of what patients and their families experience, and promoted a change in the way students would approach clinical skills. Analysis of reflections indicated a high level of empathy for the patient and his family members. Overall, the activity was highly received by students as a valuable learning activity. As such, we propose that virtual reality could be a useful pedagogical tool to facilitate empathy and clinical skills within medical education.

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Data Availability

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Author information




All authors contributed to the study conception and design. Material preparation, data collection, and analysis were performed by Carrie Elzie and Jacqueline Shaia. The first draft of the manuscript was written by Carrie Elzie, and all authors commented on previous versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Carrie A. Elzie.

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This study was approved by the Human Research Ethics committee of Eastern Virginia Medical School (IRB # 19-10-WC-0246).

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Elzie, C.A., Shaia, J. A Pilot Study of the Impact of Virtually Embodying a Patient with a Terminal Illness. Med.Sci.Educ. (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40670-021-01243-9

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  • Virtual reality
  • Empathy
  • Embodied learning