NHS Transformation Directorate share rise in use of extended reality tech and future work

A team from the NHS Transformation Directorate including Neesa Mangalaparathy, Extended Reality Programme Delivery Lead, and Peter Treeby, the programme’s Extended Reality Project Manager, have shared their learnings about the current state of immersive technology use in healthcare in a new blog.

The digital productivity programme aims to identify the “greatest benefit-realising digital technologies that improve productivity and efficiency” through evidence-based research.

A mapping exercise revealed that around 13 times as many NHS providers are now using extended reality (EX) technology, compared to pre-pandemic levels.

The blog highlights some of the current XR technology use and research in the NHS, including:

  • Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust completed a study involving immersive virtual reality treatment of children with autism-related phobias, with results indicating that nearly 45 percent of patients remained phobia-free six months after the treatment.
  • Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust introduced mixed reality headsets onto wards treating COVID-19 patients, so that healthcare teams can view what the doctor sees over a secure live video feed without having to be present on the ward in person. This has led to staff spending up to 83 percent less time in high-risk areas and reduced the need for PPE.
  • A Staffordshire-based NHS-funded project saw 240 patients with chronic lung conditions provided with virtual reality headsets to carry out supervised pulmonary rehabilitation exercises during national lockdown.
  • Trainee doctors are using virtual reality training equipment to practise endoscopy skills in “an immersive and realistic way” and maximise patient safety in real operations at East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, with teachers able to accurately assess students’ progress.

The programme found that XR is used most in NHS and social care in the areas of education and training, mental health and wellbeing, physiotherapy and rehabilitation, and pain management. Other areas include 3d visualisations of images, scans for pre-surgical training, image-guided surgeries and remote connections (for example, for community nurses).

Associated benefits reported are said to include saving staff time, improving staff experience, increasing accessibility, improving service efficiency and increasing positive patient outcomes.

The programme also identified barriers to the adoption of XR through discussions with NHS providers, researchers and the wider industry. The most common barrier was the lack of quantitive and qualitative evidence on the value XR can bring. Other common barriers were high initial costs, difficulties in gaining stakeholder approval, the absence of a clear route to market, a lack of clarity on regulatory requirements, and usability and accessibility issues for specific user groups.

“Without robust data demonstrating efficacy, safety and return on investment, this can make obtaining buy-in a more difficult and lengthy process,” the blog notes. “The need for more robust data for XR in healthcare is becoming increasingly important.”

In order to address these barriers, a discovery report has made 12 recommendations, with work already beginning to address some of the short-term recommendations:

  • 14 NHS sites have been awarded £2 million from the Unified Tech Fund to pilot XR projects and generate evidence and learnings.
  • A community of practice has been set up to encourage collaboration and knowledge-sharing.
  • A clear route to market for XR in education and training has been established and will be taken forward by Health Education England (HEE).
  • A living product directory has been developed to support NHS providers looking for specific XR solutions to support their needs.
  • A list of high-level benefits has been identified and shared through the programme’s evidence-based library.
  • A growing number of case studies are being developed and shared for learnings and recommendation.

The blog states that delivery of some of the longer-term recommendations will be dependent on evidence generated from XR projects in healthcare, the relevance of this data against NHS priorities, and the direction of travel for XR as it evolves. A cost-benefit analysis framework has been developed to support ongoing evaluation of impact for XR projects. It is available here for NHS colleagues and XR suppliers in healthcare to use.

The community of practice is open to everyone interested in supporting safe and effective use of XR in the NHS and social care, including academia. To join and to access the discovery report in full, please contact