Virtual reality is helping babies breathe thanks to a project from Seattle Children’s and Oxford

Pediatricians and nurses using virtual reality at the College of Medicine at the University of Lagos Simulation Skills Center. (Seattle Children’s Photo)

As a neonatologist at Seattle Children’s, Dr. Rachel Umoren knows that every second counts when a baby is born and doesn’t breathe or cry. If a caregiver doesn’t act fast, the result can be death or brain damage.

Dr. Rachel Umoren. (Seattle Children’s Photo)

“It’s a staggering problem,” said Umoren, noting that each year 280,000 babies die of birth asphyxia in sub-Saharan Africa. Globally, the condition is responsible for 23 percent of all newborn deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

Umoren is part of a project from Seattle Children’s and Oxford that is creating a virtual reality training program to educate more health workers on rapid-response techniques at low cost. The effort is part of Oxford’s LIFE project, a platform for VR-based healthcare training.

The medical world’s answer to the problem is Helping Babies Breathe (HBB), a set of techniques that can reduce neonatal mortality by 47 percent, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

HBB is an effective program that has been deployed globally. But like any other training program, health workers need refresher courses and updates on new practices, Umoren said. In many places, there isn’t enough money to pay for them.

Electronic versions of HBB already exist, but they require a computer with an internet connection. The VR solution was designed to run locally on a smartphone, making it portable, more interactive and potentially cheaper than a web-based program.

Umoren said the VR training tool was intended for “low-dose, high-frequency practice,” meaning that it can be used over and over again to refresh skills. The project is being tested across 20 healthcare facilities and 300 healthcare workers in Lagos, Nigeria, and Busia, Kenya.

The virtual reality simulation trains healthcare workers on rapid-response techniques when a newborn isn’t breathing. (Seattle Children’s Screenshot)

Employers are increasingly embracing VR as a way to train everyone from pilots to surgeons. Even Walmart used the technology to prep its workers for Black Friday.

As in many life-and-death scenarios, resuscitating a newborn requires caregivers to act quickly. That’s where virtual reality’s other advantages become apparent: the trainees develop muscle memory as they run through the simulation.

“You can’t be flipping through a manual when there’s a baby right in front of you and you need to do something,” said Umoren.

Each time the simulation starts, the scenario can be any of three situations: normal birth, some help needed, and not breathing at all. “You don’t know what you’re gonna get,” said Umoren.

Seattle Children’s is a hundred-year-old children’s hospital and research center that serves more than 400,000 patients annually. U.S. News and World Report ranked the hospital was 20th nationally for neonatology.