Insights

Can tech drive empathy?

Overcoming the challenges of using augmented reality to increase patient-focused behaviours.  

Imagine seeing yourself with the very visible symptoms of a life-changing disease.

Augmented reality (AR) is a tool that enables just that. But not, it must be said, without challenges.

Being a technology that is synonymous with digital entertainment, AR proves problematic when trying to represent something close to realism. Particularly when replicating symptoms as part of a simulation of living with a chronic medical condition.  

It’s graphical and mapping capabilities more often than not make it appear simplistic, cartoonish and even comedic. This is fine if you want to see yourself with a unicorn’s head or as one of the Simpsons, but not if you want to experience what it’s like to live with an oozing or bleeding facial rash. We fail if, on seeing your red-raw face, we make you laugh rather than cry or seeing your skin yellowed with jaundice leaves you amused instead of alarmed.  

From our many conversations with real-life patients, we know there’s nothing particularly funny or entertaining about the symptoms of chronic conditions. So, when we attempt to bring them to life through augmented reality, the authenticity of its use and intention of its impact are both very carefully considered.

From dermatitis to hepatitis and lupus to breast cancer, our immersive experiences viscerally simulate what it’s like to be a patient living with a particular condition. And because these are no mere exercise in slipping on someone else’s imaginary shoes, our use of AR must never be reduced to a tech-for-tech’s-sake gimmick, entertaining diversion or – worse of all – a gratuitous shock tactic.

So yes, AR can be a hugely effective immersive tool. It can put the ability for people to see themselves as they would appear as a patient directly in their hands. But we owe it to our real-life patient collaborators to ensure experience participants are asking the right questions when we give them a symptomatic appearance. Instead of ‘how does this condition make me look?’, we always prompt them to reflect on ‘how does looking this way make me feel?’

For example, when seeing themselves on their mobile screen with an oozing facial rash, participants must feel the embarrassment and low self-esteem often felt by people living with Atopic Dermatitis. Or when viewing AR-rendered hair loss brought about by Alopecia or oncological chemotherapy, they should gain insight into the psychological implications of what they are seeing.

To achieve immersion in this combined physical and emotional reality, AR must be treated with consideration, respect, and diligence.

To avoid it being no more than a momentary snapshot of a symptom, that can be easily forgotten as soon as a phone is put down, AR should never be presented solely as the experience in and of itself. Instead, AR is used only as part of our wider exploratory experiences that encourage participants to reflect on how what they see makes them act, think, speak, and feel.

Bringing participants closer to comprehending the discomfort, stigma and even fear that many patients encounter when viewed by others, demands a high level of conscious realism. And as stated before, realism is not AR’s most accommodating friend.

Rather than run the risk of AR making a symptom such as a skin rash or jaundice comical or forgettable, we extensively research clinical imagery and interview many patients to ensure both visual and emotional integrity. Not only to reproduce the symptom with visceral realism, but to ensure we treat both the condition, and all the patients living with its effects, with respect.

And that in itself throws up another issue. When using AR to replicate a symptom’s effect on the skin, we must ensure it works for everyone, no matter what their colour or tone. Finding adequate source imagery that reflects true patient diversity is particularly challenging. Especially when our aim is to help participants to better understand the psychological burden that all patients carry as a result of their symptoms.

So yes, AR is indeed a technology that can drive patient-focused empathy. But only when conceived, developed, and used with empathy for all the patients it is intended to portray. And only as a fully integrated component of a holistic patient obsessed experience.

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