AMWA Initiatives — Diversity Dialogues
Diversity Dialogues: Emily Phelps, MS-2
Graduate School: Boston University
Medical School: Rush Medical College
Fun Fact: Adventurous eater! Alligator, cow tongue, chicken feet… just not a fan of chocolate.
Virtual Reality Background: The VR Dementia Simulation is a partnership with Embodied Labs that applies VR modules to medical education. In the simulation, students embody the first-person vantage of Beatriz, a Latina woman with progressively worsening stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Our goal is to promote empathy, challenge ageism, and offer person-centered insight into the patient experience.
Neelum T. Aggarwal, MD
Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer
Merry Jean Losso, M4
National Medical Student Chair, Diversity and Inclusion Committee
MJL: What inspired you to pursue this research project?
EP: My previous role facilitating an art therapy program for persons with dementia actually connected me to this project. The world of innovative dementia care is small! While our emphasis on life stories is similar, working with focus group data alongside modern technology has been very energizing. I appreciate that as future physicians, our understanding of the human experience is paramount. Embodied Labs helps us to do that, particularly across age. The founder of Embodied Labs, Carrie Shaw, is a huge inspiration. The global impact of her company and the heart behind these modules point to her brilliance, ingenuity, and compassion.
NTA: How have students responded to virtual reality demonstrations?
EP: The best part of my role is seeing those responses regularly. Often I use the analogy of the movie, Inception. This simulation is an experience within an experience. Students are frustrated by their difficulty with tasks and lack of direction, but it is intentionally the design of experiential confusion. At the same time, students are struck by the emotional medley at play: fear, peace, sorrow, joy. Students have commented on the impact of hearing Beatriz’s internal dialogue, realizing her awareness to being underestimated and at times isolated among her family. Unique in this module is the interaction with other family members, and we often don’t discuss those relationships in medicine. Ultimately, students are aware that interspersed moments of relief and connectedness are meant to reinstate calmness and autonomy.
MJL: Alzheimer’s Disease is affecting a growing population of patients, particularly women. How have sex and gender differences shaped your outlook? What has this research project taught you regarding Alzheimer’s Disease that you have not been taught in your medical education to date?
EP: Our data actually reflect a curiosity about gender roles and sex differences in both patients and caregivers. Among our surveys is an inventory of sex and gender differences in medicine, and it is clear that this content is new to most of our participants. We also notice that Beatriz and her daughter are the main care partner – care giver team. Students often ask: how would this relationship be different among a father and son? What is also new for students are sensory deficits and issues with speech in Alzheimer’s disease. We focus mainly on memory loss. So to experience hallucinations as well as distortions in your own speech (as it is played back to you), it is quite unexpected.
NTA: What role do you see technology having in medical education? What do you think technology can’t replace in medical education?
EP: Ultimately, we need to take insight from technology and apply these skills with families. These modules will help us inform curricular development and simulation education, which help us feel more comfortable, knowledgeable, and equipped with tools that feel natural to us. As our colleagues from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center shared: “if you’ve seen one case of AD, you’ve seen one case.” As such, the variability among individuals with vast life experiences will make it hard to be fully prepared to care for them. But with these modules, we are adding anecdotal depth and personal considerations to what is otherwise a list of symptoms.
MJL: As a future clinician/researcher, how do you expect this project to inform your approach to patient care? What other projects are you working on in this area?
EP: Restoring autonomy for patients is at the forefront of my mind. This project lends insight into sensory, relational, and conversational accommodations I can make to put the patient in the driver’s seat. The protocol of this project has also refined my approach to initiating and studying dialogue, because the focus group data depends on it. I’ve been able to apply these skills in other projects across campus and in community endeavors that broadly address wellness. Thankfully this will be my job one day!
Stay tuned for our next Diversity Dialogues!
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