Breaking new grounds in mental healthcare

An interview with VR pioneers Erlend Thorup and Stig-Roar Aune from St Olav’s University Hospital

An innovation partnership between St Olav’s University Hospital, Attensi, and EGGS has given birth to the ObserVR – a pilot VR solution for training healthcare staff and students in patient observation. We met with Project Manager Erlend Thorup and Subject Matter Expert Stig-Roar Aune from St Olavs to talk about the project and their thoughts on innovation in the healthcare sector.

Erlend and Stig-Roar, it’s a pleasure to meet you! Could you tell me a bit about yourselves and your work?

Erlend: “Pleasure is ours! Yes, we are both part of the management support team for the department of mental health at St Olav’s University Hospital - a public hospital in Trondheim. I as project manager for innovation projects and Stig Roar as psychiatric nurse and subject matter expert in different projects.”

Erlend Thorup (left) and Stig-Roar Aune (right). a (Photo credits: St Olav's Hospital)

For the past year, you have worked on a project called ObserVR. What can you tell us about it?

Erlend: ”We had seen that a lot had happened on the tech front regarding training and development in healthcare, but there were limited solutions available that targeted the psychiatric field. At the same time, there is a huge need for training staff and students working with mental health care. The ObserVR project has created a pilot VR solution for training staff and students in observing patients, as well as describing and communicating your observation.”

Stig-Roar: ” The long-term goal of this project is, of course, to positively affect the treatment of patients. By getting access to more training, staff can be better prepared when meeting and observing patients, which we hope will result in a better experience for both staff and patients.”

After each case, the users can reflect on the observations individually or discuss them in a group setting for collective learning.

This project is a collaboration between St Olavs, Attensi, and EGGS and is funded by Innovation Norway. How has it been to collaborate across organisations?

Erlend: “Innovation requires teamwork and collaboration, so in that sense, it has been great, even if it's not always easy. EGGS has contributed with service design, stakeholder facilitation, and user insight work, and Attensi has provided the technical expertise of the technology itself.

The strength of this collaboration has been the combination of design and technology that makes everything come together. For something as complex as Virtual Reality training in healthcare to work, you need both the human side of things and the hard-core tech, so to speak. Not to mention the need for a deep understanding of healthcare services and the systems surrounding them.”

Together with Attensi and St. Olav's University Hospital, EGGS has helped develop the next-generation training for mental health professionals and students. The innovation partnership has delivered a pilot VR solution demonstrating how staff can train clinical observation without practising on actual patients.

What has been the biggest challenge in the project?

Erlend: “Being several stakeholders is a challenge in itself. There are many voices, opinions, and needs to consider. But the biggest challenge has perhaps been to change our mindset and way of working. In the healthcare sector, we are not used to working with the loose frames and level of uncertainty that innovation projects like this require. We have had to reach outside our comfort zone and trust the process, which is not easy. But very rewarding, and a learning experience.”

Stig-Roar: ”I agree; we've had to challenge our way of working. Communicating around uncertainty in a public organisation is not uncomplicated. But I feel we have gotten good tools to work better with that from this project.”

What has the experience of working with an external innovation team been like?

Erlend: "It has been very fruitful. The fact that you (EGGS) have experience in the health sector and are aware of both the limitations and the possibilities that exist within the sector has been essential. That, in combination with unique competence in innovation processes, has helped us make good choices.”

Stig-Roar: – “I think it’s been something new to most of us to work with a visual focus and to prototype ideas as we go along. But it has proven to be a very valuable method. It’s not easy to describe needs and identify them before you discuss a solution, as we have learned in a design-driven process. But it has helped us set the right direction for the project. Also, it’s been essential to have someone who can bridge the technologists and us as healthcare professionals. It has allowed us to do what we’re good at and Attensi to do what they are good at! ”

What challenges do you see for the future in the health sector?

Erlend: ”There is an intense increase in patients needing and requiring assessment and follow-up. We need to be able to handle this increasing demand. One way is by increasing our capacity and ability to assist patients remotely with digital tools.

Another challenge is to recruit healthcare staff and especially mental healthcare staff. We must ensure that we offer adequate training and onboarding of staff to make them feel comfortable and secure in their roles. New technology is not the only solution, but I believe it can be part of the solution. But it requires that we dare to test new things out and to do the hard work of implementing new ways of working."

Do you have any tips for healthcare institutions that wish to work with innovation?

Erlend: “Aquire innovation methodology competence, first of all. If you don’t have it internally, get it from external resources. Second, refrain from thinking that you must find that one big solution immediately. An all-or-nothing approach risks you getting stuck behind too high a threshold. Third, bring in as many different people as possible. You’ll find that many in your organisation want to contribute, and good ideas are everywhere.”

Stig-Roar: “Another important thing to remember is that the public sector is big and complex. Prepare yourself with time and patience. But, also, don’t be discouraged – start small and don’t try to solve everything at once.”

What are the common pitfalls in innovation processes in the healthcare sector, from your experience?

Stig-Roar: “In my experience, it’s often an issue with too little continuity in the project management. It’s vital to have an engaged and skilled Project Manager locally who can follow up. Don’t rely only on external project management.

Erlend: ”Often there is a lack of communication of the value that innovation will generate. Clarity on purpose is critical. Also, it’s essential to scope appropriately – you can’t do everything. But there’s a difficult balance to strike here – dare to have bold ambitions but stay focused and prioritize at the same time. And last but not least, try not to fall for the temptation of going for what you’re already familiar with. Innovating means learning to work with the uncertainty of what the result will be. ”

Sounds interesting?

Gøril Fluge Storrø

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Gøril Fluge Storrø
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Sigrun Vik

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Sigrun Vik
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