Healthcare/MedicineEducation & TrainingVirtual Reality

America’s Largest Public Healthcare System Adopts VR Simulation in OB Program

NYC Health + Hospitals worked with Health Scholars on a unique VR simulation.


VR simulation and training is one of the biggest use cases for virtual reality. That’s true in terms of industry size but it’s also true in terms of impact in that these use cases improve the quality of life for people that have never used VR themselves. One new deployment takes this to the extreme by increasing the health and wellness of those not yet born.

NYC Health + Hospitals and Health Scholars

“NYC” may make it sound pretty regional, but NYC Health + Hospitals is America’s largest public healthcare system. While entirely in metro New York City, the organization consists of over 70 centers and provides care for over a million people every year. Like any hospital system, obstetrics (OB) is one of the most sensitive areas.

Obstetrics is a special branch of medicine dealing with childbirth including care for both the child and the mother. Anything can happen, and obstetricians need to think quickly. Complications during any delivery can have life-threatening or life-long implications.

NYC Health + Hospitals and Health Scholars - OB VR simulation and training

“Thankfully, serious and life-threatening conditions during childbirth, labor, and the postpartum period are uncommon,” NYC Health + Hospitals Chief Women’s Health Officer, Wendy Wilcox, MD, MPH, MBA, FACOG, said in a release. “However, ensuring that our providers have the skills necessary to deal with these critical situations is paramount.”

Like any practice, there’s no substitute for experience. However, training and simulation play an important role in initial, as well as ongoing education. With its no-risk, highly controlled environments, virtual reality is a natural fit. As a result, NYC Health + Hospitals has employed VR simulation for some time.

However, the system utilized dedicated simulation labs. The system has its own simulation labs, so travel wasn’t a huge issue, but the labs still need to be reserved for use and have limited occupancy per session. It was time for something better.

Health Scholars is dedicated to making medical VR simulation and assessment software. With modules for both hospitals and emergency responders, the organization works with some of the biggest healthcare providers in the country.

Health Scholars worked directly with NYC Health + Hospitals to create “the first virtual reality simulation for postpartum hemorrhage.” According to the release, this is the first of many modules that will eventually make up the complete program.

Training, Upgraded

Rather than utilizing an entire simulation lab, this system is designed to run on a Quest 2, of which NYC Health + Hospitals has just purchased 22. While delivery isn’t a one-practitioner operation, the software is designed to be used by a single user. What may seem like a limitation was a design choice so each practitioner can go through the VR simulations at their own pace.

“Moving OB simulation into VR provides educators an affordable, efficient, and easy way to deliver students and healthcare providers the practice required to provide safe and effective care to OB patients,” Health Scholars Medical Director, Pam Martin, MD, FACS, said in the release. “Our VR training enables any size organization to scale readiness.”

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Instead of requiring multi-user collaborative simulations to be scripted, and then risking holding up the training in a limited time frame – or worse, leaving people behind to keep up the pace – this VR simulation offers “adaptive learning.” That means that the content that each practitioner gets is the result of their performance up to that point.

This doesn’t mean that the simulation labs are closing. There’s still a lot of use in that level of training. However, Health Scholars’ product and the way that NYC Health + Hospitals is implementing it prioritize individual sessions. Practitioners are even encouraged to check out headsets with the software on their own schedules for individual study.

While practitioners now have the flexibility to take control of their own continuing education through the platform, they aren’t in it alone. Health Scholars’ VR simulations include analysis of performance down to individual users so that the system can understand and learn from how each user handles each scenario.

A Look at the VR Simulation

Because Health Scholars worked directly with NYC Health + Hospitals in developing the VR simulation, they were able to account for details that may go overlooked elsewhere. Pregnancy-related mortality is significantly higher among people of color, so the module includes a patient and partner of color, as well as “a diverse care team.”

“Black women are affected disproportionately related to maternal mortality and morbidity and we must utilize every opportunity to close those equity gaps,” Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, Anne Williams-Isom, said in the release. “These new tools are yet another part of how the city is working to provide safe, healthy births for every expectant person and family.”

NYC Mayor Eric Adams at NYCHH - OB VR simulation and training
New York City Mayor Eric Adams visits the NYC Health + Hospitals Jacobi in the Bronx facility to test technology to improve maternal health outcomes on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Prior to the VR simulation, a practitioner is given a patient report, just like they would be for a real patient. Then, they enter a model delivery unit where they are in charge of a full health team. Not every practitioner will be a team lead in every delivery, but the intent is that everyone who goes through the simulation understands every other role as well as their own.

The practitioner must use voice commands to direct each of the intelligent avatar staff members in their specific role in the delivery, as well as communicate with the patient. Following the simulation, the practitioner receives a report on what they did well and what they should continue to work on.

“By investing in technology to train health care providers on how to safely deliver babies in life-threatening scenarios, we are ensuring that all expecting parents and babies have access to the quality care they deserve,” New York City Mayor, Eric Adams, said in the release.

Back to the Basics?

There has been a lot of development recently in networked virtual worlds, as well as more nuanced content creation and value generation in immersive spaces. That’s all great, but this is an interesting use case getting back to the roots of VR. VR simulation doesn’t need a lot of those next-gen functionalities to save and improve lives. It just needs heart and dedication.

Jon Jaehnig
the authorJon Jaehnig
Jon Jaehnig is a freelance journalist with special interest in emerging technologies. Jon has a degree in Scientific and Technical Communication from Michigan Technological University and lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. If you have a story suggestion for Jon, you may contact him here.