2023 Science, Technology and Environment

Anne Lord Bailey, Caitlin Rawlins and the VA Immersive Team

Built a cutting-edge nationwide immersive technology network to empower front-line staff and enable the treatment of veterans for a wide range of medical issues such as anxiety, depression, pain management, spinal cord injuries and more.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has created a nationwide network that is enabling its medical centers to use immersive technology like virtual and augmented reality to transform the way it treats and cares for our nation’s veterans.  

Led by Anne Lord Bailey and Caitlin Rawlins, the Veterans Health Administration’s Extended Reality, or XR Network, has implemented the latest immersive technology, offered training to front-line staff and expanded its reach to more than 160 medical centers and outpatient clinics to address some 20 medical issues such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, pain management, spinal cord injuries and palliative care.  

“The value to the veteran population has been incredible. This sets the stage to change and save veterans’ lives through an early adoption and refinement of new immersive technology,” said Kristopher Teague, executive director of the VHA Innovation Ecosystem.  

The VA has immersive technology options in every state 

Immersive technology involves user-controlled equipment and software to merge the real world with a digital or simulated reality to deal with physical, emotional and mental health issues.  

More than 1,700 clinicians and front-line staff are now engaged in learning about and using this technology in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.  

“Anne and Caitlin have allowed us to be a leader in the American health care system in trying to figure out how these new technology tools fit into our service delivery,” said Blake Henderson, director of the VHA Diffusion of Excellence, which spreads promising new health care practices throughout the organization. 

Thanks to the team’s work, clinicians have used virtual reality to distract patients who remain conscious during surgery or are receiving chemotherapy, to help veterans cope with PTSD by easing them back into the setting where a stressor event occurred, and to improve individuals’ psychological well-being by transporting them to peaceful scenes during mental health therapy sessions.   

Employees also have used this technology to participate in empathy training to better understand the needs of veterans with dementia and those identifying as LGBTQ+. 

In one evaluation, 67% of VA patients said the technology eased pain and 84% experienced a reduction in anxiety level. Nearly all who tested it called it simple to use and wanted more of it in VA facilities. 

“They have taken technology that is making a big difference in several important areas of health care and activated it throughout the VA hospital system,” said Walter Greenleaf, a neuroscientist and digital health expert at Stanford University.  

Acceptance of the new technology required persistence 

Bailey and Rawlins oversee and are now expanding the program. 

While a nurse in the Western North Carolina VA Health Care System, Rawlins observed how opioids were often dispensed to treat pain and began studying other options.  

Her initial attempts to jumpstart the VA’s use of immersive technology were rejected twice. She and Bailey had to overcome VA-wide hesitancy to embrace an initiative that required new acquisitions, patient consent and cybersecurity guidelines. Rawlins began piloting the clinical implementation of her proposals in 2018 and, more than a year later, she and Bailey began expanding the XR Network across the VA.  

Rawlins said they want to make sure the technology becomes an option for veterans in any patient setting, including in the veteran’s home. “We are in the business of improving the veteran experience and patient outcomes, and immersive technology has the potential to increase access to and engagement with care through virtual experiences that can be personalized to a patient,” she said. 

Bailey said this new technology is about transforming how care is delivered and experienced. “Through immersive technologies like virtual reality, patients are reporting decreased pain perception, anxiety and boredom while expressing increased enthusiasm about life and well-being,” she said.