ATD Blog

The Brain Science of Patient Satisfaction and Why VR Provides an Ideal Solution

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The goal of all hospital administrators and medical personnel is to effectively treat every patient’s medical condition. Ensuring that healthcare providers are highly trained in all aspects of a medical procedure will surely increase patient satisfaction, but this is only half of the equation. The other half centers around the patient’s understanding of and familiarization with the upcoming medical procedures.

The Psychology of Patient Satisfaction

When a patient is informed they suffer from a medical condition that requires some medical procedure and perhaps a hospital stay, it is normal to experience stress and anxiety. At least some of this comes from a simple lack of experience. Most of us have little, if any, experience with hospitals in general, and the majority of patients will have no experience with the upcoming medical procedure. This lack of familiarity and experience breeds stress, anxiety, and mental and physical discomfort.

From a psychological standpoint, the best way to reduce this stress (and to increase patient satisfaction) is to allow patients to experience and familiarize themselves with the hospital setting and upcoming medical procedure.

One could bring the patient into the hospital several days before the medical procedure is scheduled. Have them meet the nursing staff, tour a typical hospital room, observe all of the pre-op and post-op recovery procedures, and meet a doctor in a room where these procedures are performed. Further, what if these pre- and perioperative experiences were available on-demand throughout the day of the procedure, so that any patient could learn more about their care in such a way that improves critical aspects of that patient’s care journey?

Why is this type of experience missing from standard patient education practices, especially when research shows us that well-educated patients are better able to understand and manage their own health and medical care throughout their lives? Well, for one it is resource intensive, demanding time, coordination, and staffing considerations of a system already facing challenges in these domains. And yet, we can do something about it. It is vital that we understand what specifically makes this experiential approach to patient care so powerful—it comes down to how we are wired as humans and how the brain learns and remembers.

This approach facilitates experiential learning and broadly engages a number of learning and memory systems in the brain. This includes a broad set of sensory representation systems in the brain that include the occipital (visual), temporal (auditory), parietal (tactile) and piriform (olfaction) cortices. Every experience is unique and has some emotional valence to it. In that sense, the emotional learning and memory systems are also engaged. Finally, any written or spoken information will be processed by the cognitive learning and memory systems in the brain. Taken together, a visit to the hospital broadly engages a number of learning and memory systems in the brain and will reduce uncertainty, anxiety, and stress while increasing patient preparedness and satisfaction. Although this may be the ideal method for reducing stress and increasing patient satisfaction, it is simply not cost- or time-effective for anyone involved.

The Traditional Approach to Patient Familiarization

Given that physical visits to the hospital are cost prohibitive, what procedures do hospitals typically take to familiarize patients and what does brain science have to say about their effectiveness?


By far the most common approach to patient familiarization is to have them read text describing, in detail, all of the steps that will be taken during the hospital stay and medical procedure. Patients are informed of the potential risks, side effects, and discomforts they might feel during their stay at the hospital. While in some cases a pre-operative visit to the hospital might occur, in the majority of cases patients never visit the hospital prior to admission.

From a psychological and brain science perspective this approach is ineffective at familiarizing the patient with the hospital and the upcoming medical procedure. Text-based information is processed exclusively by the cognitive learning and memory systems in the brain. Emotional learning and sensory representation areas are not engaged. A patient who never visits the hospital has only their imagination to drive their mental understanding of the hospital setting.

Einstein said it best: “Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information.”

What can be done to better familiarize patients that is not cost prohibitive? It turns out we can accomplish many, if not all, of our aims—from familiarization to training, from stress reduction to satisfaction—by applying our knowledge of how the brain works to provide an immersive care experience for patients.


A Virtual Reality Approach to Patient Familiarization

Let’s go back to our original conclusion. The best way to familiarize a patient with the hospital setting, in general, and the upcoming medical procedure, in particular, is to take the patient on a comprehensive physical tour. This is resource-prohibitive, but what if we could take them on a comprehensive virtual tour? We can. Virtual reality (VR) provides the patient with a first-person immersive experience. Done well, interactive storytelling blurs the lines between real and virtual immersive experiences.

Imagine this scenario: A patient puts on a VR headset, called a head mounted display (HMD), and is instantaneously transported into the hospital waiting area. He looks up and is greeted by a nurse who is about to describe the details of his upcoming stay. The patient, 6’5”, is surprised to be looking up at a 5’7” nurse, until he looks around and realizes he is in a wheelchair. From the waiting area, the patient is transported into a typical hospital room. The patient can look around and see the bed, nightstand, and even the location of the bathroom. The nurse points out some of the equipment and the location of the call button. From here the patient is transported into a preoperative waiting room and is greeted by one of the surgeons. Finally, the patient sees the postoperative recovery room, where he will awake after his surgery and be rejoined with members of his family. Once the tour is complete, the patient removes the HMD and is back in his living room or doctor’s office where he began his journey. The story being told within the VR experience is compelling and realistic. The patient feels a sense of “presence,” a sense that he was actually there meeting actual people.

What does the brain science have to say about this approach to patient familiarization?

The brain science is clear. If the best way to familiarize a patient is to give them a comprehensive physical tour, the next best thing is to give them a comprehensive virtual tour. Whereas the traditional approach to patient familiarization leaves the patient with no familiarity of the hospital setting and an inaccurate sensory representation of the medical procedure, risks, side effects, and discomforts that are derived from abstract (text-based) representations, the VR approach provides a high-fidelity, immersive, realistic experience. Thus, the mental representation that the patient requires to increase familiarity with the hospital and medical procedures is provided directly from the HMD. This results in a natural, intuitive, and highly accurate mental representation in the brain.

Another advantage of such VR experiences is that the patient can repeat the experience as many times as they like. Repeated exposure for the patient will lead to continued reductions in stress and anxiety and increases in preparedness and satisfaction. Additionally, the quality of the experience is standardized and consistent for all patients, which not only augments the caregiving capabilities for the facility, it also gives providers the ability to better understand the needs of their patients. The VR experience can also be shared with friends and family. This will reduce their stress and anxiety and enhance their connection with the patient. Taken together, everyone involved feels less stress and anxiety and enhanced preparedness and satisfaction.


Familiarity and experience reduce stress, anxiety, and discomfort and enhance preparedness and satisfaction in patients and their loved ones. VR achieves these goals; the psychological and brain research are clear on that point. The result is a patient who is as relaxed and confident as can be expected when they enter the hospital setting for the actual medical procedure. Relaxation and confidence increase satisfaction. Combine this relaxed and confident patient with a successful medical procedure and the result is a highly satisfied patient—a primary goal of all hospital administrators and medical personnel.

About the Author

Todd Maddox, PhD, is the CEO and founder of Cognitive Design and Statistical Consulting, LLC. His passion is to apply his 25 years of scientific and neuroscientific expertise, gained by managing a large human learning and performance laboratory, to help build better training solutions. Todd published more than 200 scientific articles resulting in over 10,000 academic citations. Todd is a prolific learning science speaker, and to date, has won over $10 million in federal grants from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and Department of Defense. After receiving his PhD in psychology and brain science, Todd embarked on a 25-year academic research career achieving status as a leader in the fields of human learning and memory. Todd is especially interested in applying his optimized training expertise to healthcare, corporate training, and the emerging technologies of virtual, augmented, and mixed reality. He is currently writing a book focused on bringing the science of optimized training into the commercial sector. Twitter: @wtoddmaddox

About the Author

Tim Fitzpatrick is a cofounder and CEO of IKONA, a company creating immersive content and mixed reality applications designed to transform the patient experience and train the next generation of healthcare providers. A U.S. Navy veteran and former Wall Street technology sector equities trader, Tim is driven by his own long-term patient journey and an endeavor to change the human experience.

Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.