Virtual Reality: An Interactive Training Experience

May 25, 2021

Virtual reality can transform pharmaceutical training outcomes – and better staff can lead to a better business and impact a company’s bottom line

A well-educated and trained workforce is essential to drive business success and companies need employees who are highly skilled and adaptable. The prevalence of rote learning methods tends to focus on drilling in specific processes and procedures, but this doesn’t translate well when processes have to change to adopt new manufacturing technologies; for example, for advanced therapy manufacturing. The bulk of most companies’ current training programs remain overly transactional and do not truly prepare employees for changing situations. For instance, an operator may be required to read a lengthy procedure they should perform every day – turn the equipment on and adjust settings to specific parameters – but they are rarely taught any of the scientific and engineering principles behind why they must perform these duties. This can result in lower morale, since employees may not feel they are valued by their company. And it also means that the company is not making the best use of their staff – it is always beneficial to ensure that staff are truly knowledgeable.

For many years and across many different pharmaceutical companies and geographies, we have seen human error rates consistently in the low 40 percent range, but some studies indicate that as much as 80 percent of all deviations, once drilled down, are rooted in human error or human related lack of understanding. Ideally, pharmaceutical staff should learn the underlying science so that they can understand any aseptic processing line and how concepts, such as air flow, may affect product quality.

But what is the best way to train staff and ensure they are engaged in their learning? Increasingly, I believe we are reaching a point where traditional methods of training, such as reading and memorizing manuals, should no longer be accepted. The current generation of employees have grown up with seemingly endless access to high-end, on-demand interactive technology – in fact,  many students leaving academia and entering the pharmaceutical workforce today just aren’t used to learning and operating primarily with pen and paper. But regardless of our age, none of us really want a stale and ineffective educational experience...  all employees deserve an educational experience that is engaging and empowering. And a positive experience will lead to better motivation.

The most common approaches to training consist of reading standard operating procedures, manuals, presentations, videos or computer courses — but in my view, these rote learning models fail to consistently deliver engaging content with relevant experiential learning opportunities. And they can certainly be rather uninspiring for a workforce! Learning by doing is hard coded into our development from our very first experiences during childhood and experiential learning is key toward empowering critical thinking and the type of enduring understanding that drives long-term retention of desired concepts. Adult learners learn best from making mistakes, but mistakes in a pharmaceutical environment can be risky and expensive – and are the last thing any pharma company wants! VR, however, offers an environment where employees can try out new learnings without the danger of affecting real-life product.

To resolve this problem, we initially considered developing a “people solution,” as we have excellent trainers on our team. However, pharma is a huge industry with an ever-increasing global footprint. A technological solution would be more feasible, but we felt in today’s society, there should be other more innovative training options that can better engage workforces in their educational development over the course of their careers, on-demand. When evaluating potential technology solutions, we realized that VR could have huge benefits. After all, the best way to learn is by doing…

An unlikely partnership

VR is uniquely equipped to address the growing education gap in pharmaceutical operations Learning exercises can be conducted in realistic virtual facilities, with tracking and correction of errors in real-time, consistent to each learners’ movements and order of operations.

VR has been around for many years and has advanced enormously as technologies and VR hardware have evolved. The business community now recognizes that VR is an essential tool for employee education and training due to the technology’s ability to provide users with realistic learning environments and the opportunity to make risk-free mistakes. In pharma, it is possible to use virtual facilities to safely teach workers the daily operations within, for example, microbiology laboratory and controlled manufacturing environments. Rather than simply watching a trainer perform an action or reading a procedure, employees can practice the skills themselves using a VR headset and controllers.

I believe that VR is a perfect platform for learning because it’s optimized for user engagement. The technology leverages the idea of embodied cognition – the concept that our ability to rationalize processes is dependent on our physical experiences. VR can also track a whole host of information such as how long it took to complete a task and if it was completed to a desired standard. Such data can help companies further tailor their training programs to meet the needs of their workforce and highlight the strengths of existing programs. 

The pharma industry is sometimes criticized for being reluctant to use new technology, but this hesitation is changing.  Many regulators, in particular, seem interested in the technology because of its potential in training.  MHRA, for example, participated as a beta partner during early development of our VR educational platform Virtuosi, and have continued that support as a commercial client as well. Many other leading regulatory organizations are also keenly interested in our platform, as they also see the benefits of the technology to enhance understanding of principles in practice, and the standardization it brings.

The future is virtual

Is VR a gimmick? While this technology has been associated with gaming and entertainment, if the virtual reality environments and interactive learning content is developed and applied appropriately, it is a powerful business solution. Virtual reality technologies are used in a variety of industries, to include training programs for surgeons. In fact, a number of academic studies have proven that surgeons trained in VR are 29 percent faster and make 6 times fewer errors compared with traditional training approaches.

I am particularly passionate about using VR for training because of its power of embodied cognition to embed learning in the long-term memory centers of the brain, driving enduring understanding and influencing skills and behaviors exhibited on the job. In reality, it is not even accurate to describe VR as a training tool, as it has far wider impact. It as a true educational platform, providing a significant benefit to a company’s top and bottom lines. Virtual reality education programs are business solutions. If as an industry, we can find the courage to accept the challenge of change into the digital world, the business benefits of technology will be extraordinary.

VR technologies are rapidly evolving and, from an educational standpoint, the opportunities to develop training programs that help the pharmaceutical industry progress are almost endless. As an industry, we are at a truly exciting and transformational transition into advanced technologies and therapies, but these involve complex, high-risk operations and, thus, employees must be trained. Customized VR training programs can meet this need. The potential really does stretch as far as the imagination when it comes to this digital vehicle for change.

 VR In Practice

The applications of VR are broad and have educational value for pharmaceutical professionals and patients alike. Here are just a few examples of how VR is currently being used to train and educate stakeholders in the pharmaceutical industry.

  • Pall, a supplier of filtration, separations and purification products, is using a VR platform, Hakobio, to create a digital twin, or replica, of a continuous manufacturing facility. The VR-designed facility will be used to introduce individuals to the equipment used in a real production environment. 
  • In 2016, in collaboration with Novartis, a start-up tech company called Nanome developed a VR platform for drug discovery to help reduce the time and labor required to develop new drugs. The four-year-old platform is now used by companies to allow their scientists to physically interact with molecules to better understand their structural features.
  • Amplified Robot, a digital development studio, is using VR to show how a drug’s hypothetical mode of action works. One of the aims is to potentially allow patients to see how a drug works rather than having to make sense of written instructions on the drug packaging.