by Andrea Fox

Patient distraction therapy, long-used by UCHealth with virtual reality and other techniques, and joy are framing the Aurora, Colorado-based health system’s first in-app augmented reality experience. 

Beginning this fall, a patient or visitor will be able to click a button in their UCHealth mobile app and be directed to open their device’s camera on a trigger point that will make a dog virtually come alive through AR in the waiting room. Patients will be able to choose a dog they prefer, maybe even name the pup, and then engage with them when they appear in the room. 

This first use case is just the beginning of AR in the UCHealth app. The organization will keep building on augmented experiences, according to Nicole Caputo, senior director of patient experience and innovation, who is leading the effort. Caputo sat down with Healthcare IT News to share how it will all come together, and what future use cases may be offered to patients and others.


AR ‘perfect extension’ to a mobile-first strategy

UCHealth has a mobile-first strategy. Caputo said the health system had designed its native app to be the one place for all mobile-based patient engagement. 

“The one thing that comes with us everywhere we go – it’s our phone. If you look at the data around people using their phones, from everything from retail to food, to everything, right?” said Caputo. 

“Especially during the pandemic. Those numbers just skyrocketed, and we want to be there in the same place for our patients and provide the largest amount of convenience for them.”

The UCHealth mobile app has had more than 500,000 users in the last 90 days. It includes a patient portal, indoor facility navigation, wellness features and more, along with a virtual assistant tool.

“We’re adding more and more wellness features to it because we really want it to be the one place you can go daily to not just send a message to your provider and check your test results, but also just improve your life, improve your health and lifestyle, and find what you need just to be out and be active in our awesome state,” Caputo explained. “So that’s our ‘why’ on how augmented reality fits into that.”

AR is the “perfect extension,” she said. 

“The technology has come a long way in the past few years,” said Caputo. “We have used it in the past for a few things like print advertising and using a QR code and kind of scanning over and then having a video pop up on your phone. So, very simplistic uses in the past that were more mobile web-based.”

UCHealth plans to keep building AR experiences, in both iOS and Android, that also educate patients and improve overall connectivity with their health. 

“Actually being able to see something in your environment to bring things to life within your environment, we’re really excited,” whether it’s prescription labels or traditional educational pamphlets, said Caputo.

By keeping AR functionality integrated within the native UCHealth app, patients and others will be able to access messaging and other features right there, without having to toggle to other applications.


Building an AR platform to last

To build a nimble AR platform, UCHealth’s internal application development and experience teams will work with Denver-based AR/VR agency August Allen. 

The dogs-in-waiting-room AR experience is slated to go live this October for testing, and after any kinks are worked out, UCHealth will take development in-house. 

“It’s not always right the first time you go, and you have to learn. You have to get people using it. You have to understand, then you have to pivot and make sure that you’re implementing it in the way that makes the most sense,” said Caputo, noting she likes to say that “it builds out in October, and then we’re just gonna continually add to it from there on out as we start to integrate AR into a lot of what we do.”

With a web-based platform, there is no need to initiate an app update to push out an AR trigger or content.

Her team can start working with UCHealth’s trove of content – important tools the health system employs to engage patients in learning about and facing health challenges and circumstances – bringing immersive and meaningful content to the communities they serve. 

When there are requests for new patient education flyers, her in-house agency and dev teams will ask, “Can you translate that to AR? How does that look?” she said. 

“So, it’s really starting to embed [AR] into some of these day-to-day things that we do all the time.”


Putting patients in control

Once AR technology is in place, UCHealth can go headlong into content development, amplifying patient stories and videos in the app.

“I think too, the way we’ll want to build it and the way we should build all these experiences, whether it’s an experience in virtual reality or augmented reality, is on the basis of patient choice. We build all of our digital platforms to focus on what is best for the patient,” said Caputo.

This will mean that a newly diagnosed patient will be able to control the peer patient story they are engaging with, diving into one part of the story or switching to a different part. 

“We need to be able to allow the patient to easily switch to something else, or switch to a different part of the story. Get out of it all together, find something new, and so being able to have that variety and having kind of a catalog or a library of different options is really important,” she said. 

Caputo explained that patient feedback on experiences, such as reports of dizziness or voiced preferences like musical choices, has been factored into UCHealth’s VR experiences. She said her teams learned that what makes UCHealth’s virtual reality opportunities, used for distraction therapy since 2017, most successful is choice.

“We have patients who – and this is in VR – will say, ‘Hey, you know, I’ve gone through all the content. I love fishing or I really just want to do a meditation.’ … We listen and we go out and we find that content,” she said.

UCHealth will also discontinue content based on patient feedback, Caputo said. 

A rich library of experiences is important to allow a patient to switch to another part or another experience because if a patient gets too overwhelmed, “we are not doing our job,” she said. 

“Right now, if we delivered that same patient story, it would be in a video, right? And you could pause it, or you could turn it off. In AR, we can build it so that you can, through your phone, interact and you can quickly switch to a different part of the story or somewhere else, and interact with it in a different way.” 

“And it makes it a lot more back and forth, rather than just content being delivered to you. So, that’s the power of it. It honestly puts the patient in the driver’s seat to interact with it how they want.”


Sprint for success

For those thinking about implementing augmented reality into patient experiences, Caputo suggests adopting a “sprint” mentality. It has worked really well for UCHealth’s VR and other digital media efforts.

“Really dive in on one use case to start, and remain hyper focused on that,” she said, suggesting to fine-tune it as you get feedback then build more experiences from there.

“With AR, there is so much variability in what you can do by how much interactivity you choose, I think you have to be hyper focused in the beginning and add from there,” said Caputo. “Don’t try to knock it out of the park all at once.”

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