Building empathy: the new frontier of technology innovation

We are all quite well-versed in the physical or monetary benefits of technology innovation. Businesses are more efficient, we communicate and transact across the globe in real-time, our cars will soon drive themselves and advances in healthcare and research are truly mind blowing.

But what about the use of innovation to enhance the experience of being human? To make us more empathetic, to improve quality of care, to create advocates from the apathetic and finally give us the opportunity to walk in another’s shoes? Dementia Australia is using technology to do just that, and the outcomes are truly exciting.

We spoke to Dr Tanya Petrovich to discover how innovations in technology and thinking are changing the landscape of dementia education.

BDO: What is your background and interest in technology and innovation?

TP: I don’t have any qualifications in technology. I have a PhD in Genetics and have spent many years teaching at a tertiary level. From an education point of view, I see technology as a powerful tool to better engage learners. Innovation is a requirement of good education, and all teachers should constantly evaluate their performance and consider how they can improve on it.

BDO: Tell us about the technology that Dementia Australia is using. How did it come about?

TP: In 2013, we moved to new premises and were setting up our training rooms. We wanted to create something different, and looked around for new ideas. We found nothing apart from smart white boards, so decided to create a room that would immerse participants rather than give them a passive experience.

The result was an immersive sensory room, with surround sound, colour lighting system, a massive 10 metre screen with interactive Kinect sensor and a touch screen connected to the web. This training room became almost a ‘stage’ for educational experience, allowing us to simulate environments for participants that would help them to understand what is and is not dementia-friendly design.

This was followed by the Virtual Dementia Experience - a VR experience to give participants an understanding of what a person living with dementia ‘sees’ and hears whilst walking through a home environment. It has won numerous awards and led to a mobile version called EDIE – Educational Dementia Immersive Experience.

EDIE is now available in all states, and has also won awards. EDIE uses a head mounted display and puts the participant in a 3D world to experience what it might be like to live with dementia.

BDO: That sounds fantastic. Having tried this technology out, it really does provide an immersive experience. What do you see as the benefits of the technology?

TP: Virtual Reality allows the participant to develop an empathy for the person living with dementia. We know that empathy is the key factor required to instigate practice change. It’s the game changer. Teaching professional carers to change practice without empathy is an uphill battle. With it, people become self-motivated for change.

BDO: It seems this is really testing the boundaries of what has been done in this industry before. What sort of feedback have you received?

TP: The feedback we have received from our VR workshop has been overwhelmingly positive. Participants have told us that it’s had an immediate and dramatic impact on their work practices, changed their thinking about their patients and given them an insight and understanding that they couldn’t have gained otherwise. They also feel better equipped to perform their work, and feel inspired to advocate for improvement and change.

BDO: Now that you’ve had great success with this, what are the future plans with the technology?

TP: We are currently working on using the VR platform and potentially introducing Avatars.

We will explore if Avatars can add to the experience by seeing from both the carers’ perspective and the perspective of the person living with dementia.

BDO: What is your view on how organisations such as Dementia Australia can use technology to make a difference?

TP: Technology is a powerful tool. We see it as a great way to engage people in education and for change in practice. It can also help enormously to raise awareness and provide advocacy. The Virtual Dementia Experience and EDIE have had great Media attention, which is powerful for an organisation of our size and builds community awareness.

BDO: It’s great that you’re getting exposure for Dementia awareness. If you had unlimited funds, what would you do with technology?

TP: We’re working on this! By creating an Artificially Intelligent Avatar living with dementia, we could give professionals a better understanding and experience of good communication skills to use with a person living with dementia.

BDO: Thanks Tanya. We really appreciate your time, and it’s great to see how technology can be used in this area.

To find out more about what Technology Innovation could do for your organisation, contact the BDO Digital and Technology Advisory team today.

For more information about Dementia Australia’s VR Workshops or EDIE, visit their site.