England has become the first country in the world to launch clinical training in perinatal mental health using extended reality (XR) technology.

Perinatal mental health conditions affect between 10 and 20% of women giving birth in the UK. While these problems are often mild and last for a short period, some can present as severe mental illness and without the right immediate support and care, can pose a high risk to parents and their babies.

Treatment for perinatal mental health conditions relies on healthcare professionals being able to engage and communicate effectively with patients to determine the severity of their condition and make appropriate interventions.

However, there are often limited opportunities for learners to practice these skills in a safe learning environment where they can practice and reflect on their experiences.

A ground-breaking patient avatar has been developed by Health Education England in partnership with Fracture Reality, allowing healthcare learners to expand their skills interacting with mothers with perinatal mental health problems through a series of instructor-driven simulations.

Using a headset, learners interact with the avatar – called Stacey – a virtual patient who is directed by an instructor and run as a simulation on Fracture Reality’s JoinXR platform.

The technology can be used in augmented reality where learners are able to practice in their own clinical setting as well as virtual reality that offers students the chance to experience interacting with Stacey in her own home or other clinical settings.

The project provides learners with an immersive simulated experience that allows them to have realistic and natural conversations with Stacey, asking her about her symptoms and making plans to get her the right support. These scenarios represent the types of real-life conversations health professionals may have with perinatal mental health patients – but in Stacey’s case, she is able to present to anyone who meets her in a standardised approach that enables the learner to reflect and debrief.

It has been designed to allow students to practice their skills in a safe environment until they are able to take the skills they have learnt into a real-life clinical setting.

The Centre for Immersive Technologies at the University of Leeds have evaluated the training experience.

Over 100 participants, ranging from GP and mental health nurse trainees, as well as students training to become doctors or aspiring to be clinical psychologists, have taken part.

The study has shown that this new immersive method of training is highly usable and useful for learners and educators. Some highlights include participants showing significant improvements in cognitive and emotional understanding after undertaking the simulation.

GPs in training reported a reduction in anxiety surrounding perinatal mental health consultations. Mental health nursing students had increased motivation and felt more prepared to pursue a career specialising in perinatal care.

Across all participants almost four out of five (79%) learners said they preferred this simulation training over traditional approaches.

Other universities will now be invited to trial the technology with their own students.

The project has been supported by HEE’s Technology Enhanced Learning team which has managed the relationships between subject matter experts and suppliers, and will enable access for NHS organisations to the XR technology required to deliver the training.

Steve Barclay, Health and Social Care Secretary, said: “Technology is transforming the way we deliver care for patients and train the NHS workforce.

“This project shows how we can improve training for staff using interactive technology which creates realistic simulations of clinical settings to help trainee GPs and other medical staff understand complex patient needs, for example replicating face to face conversations with new or expecting mums who may have mental health challenges around birth.

“Learning in this immersive way can prepare our future workforce to provide the best possible care for patients.”

Dr Faisal Mushtaq, Director of the Centre for Immersive Technologies, added: “The enormous potential for XR to accelerate learning has been clear for some time. But thus far, most examples in healthcare have been limited to areas involving ‘technical skills’.

“For example, we, and others, have shown how VR can be used to learn to perform surgical procedures.

“This project is significant because it demonstrates how these technologies can help people deal with difficult emotionally challenging conversations that can arise in mental health consultations. This is a big step forward for using XR to support learning and skill acquisition.”

Mark Knowles-Lee, Chief Executive of Facture Reality, said: “We’re excited to see the latest technology realised in such a meaningful way with our digital patients like Stacey.

“It’s a great privilege to be at the centre of this multidisciplinary team, coalescing cutting-edge design and development with world-class expertise in healthcare and training.”