Tapping virtual reality to help drive equity in healthcare

In 2020, the unequal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the state-sanctioned murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, laid bare the persistent disparities in access to quality health care, education, and opportunity facing Black, Latinx, Indigenous and other people of color.

IGHS has undertaken a number of new projects to reduce the inequities in our own house and backyard and across the world. Today, we are officially launching a year-long effort to develop, implement and evaluate virtual reality learning modules for healthcare providers that will allow them to see the healthcare system literally from the perspective of people of color and offer opportunities for them to provide better, more patient-centered care. The project – called CULTIVATE, short for Combating Unequal Treatment in Health Care Through Virtual Awareness and Training in Empathy – will develop immersive virtual-reality learning modules based on real patient experiences elicited through interviews.

“As providers, our unconscious biases have impacts on healthcare outcomes. We are really excited about this program because virtual reality may help rewire our unconscious and change our default judgments and actions to those that will create more equitable healthcare,” said Kelly Taylor, PhD, MS, the co-PI of the project, along with Mike Reid, MD.

CULTIVATE won $750,000 in support from Genentech Foundation as part of the Bay Area pharmaceutical company’s $16-million philanthropic investment in health equity for communities of color. Fewer than 50 projects were funded from an applicant pool of more than 350.

“Racial inequity exists across so many of the areas that are key to our mission – access to care, quality clinical data, ability to pursue and succeed in scientific and medical careers,” wrote Kristin Campbell Reed, Executive Director, Corporate and Employee Giving and The Genentech Foundation, in an op-ed published today. “The urgency to deliver on this vision is more real than ever.”

UCSF has, for the past several years, offered cutting-edge, participatory diversity, equity and inclusion training. As part of the University’s response to the events of 2020, that program is now mandatory for all UCSF faculty and staff. IGHS will eventually measure the effectiveness of the CULTIVATE virtual reality program against that of the now-mandatory University-wide training.

Taylor and Reid were also instrumental in developing a cultural humility training for COVID-19 case investigators and contact tracers around the state. UCSF and UCLA collaborated with community-based organizations to create a comprehensive three-day training designed to equip the pandemic workforce with the skills necessary to connect with communities most impacted by COVID-19. That project was funded by the Skoll Foundation.