A virtual reality visit to the doctor’s office may persuade sceptics to get vaccinated against COVID-19
According to a new scientific paper, a virtual visit to the doctor may help convince sceptics of the COVID-19 vaccine to get vaccinated. Lead author of the paper, Assistant Professor of Digital Design at ITU, Aske Mottelson, explains how VR can make a radical difference.
In 2019, the World Health Organization concluded that vaccine hesitancy was one of the biggest threats to global health. It is impossible to eradicate the disease on a global scale if a significant portion of the population remains unvaccinated.
As a demographic, young men are overrepresented among the sceptics, but according to new research there may be a way to persuade them to accept vaccination. The study which informs the researchers’ conclusion was conducted among 507 test subjects who participated in a virtual reality experiment. The experiment consisted of a virtual visit to the doctor where the information about COVID-19 and the vaccines is tailored to the specific age demographic. According to lead author of the paper, Assistant Professor, and member of the research group Human-Centred Data Science at ITU, Aske Mottelson, the relative intimacy of a VR experience may help persuade sceptics who are already familiar with VR technology:
“We polled our test subjects prior to and after the experiment to see how likely they were to change their minds about vaccination. When the experiment was conducted the vaccine was not as broadly available as it is today,” says Aske Mottelson, who at the time was a postdoc at University of Copenhagen. “We see that the likelihood of a shift in intent increases after having participated in the experiment.”
Targeting a demographic
The scientific paper entitled “A self-administered virtual reality intervention increases COVID-19 vaccination intention” published in the academic journal Vaccine is part of a larger project financed by an EIT Health-grant awarded Robert Böhm and Guido Makransky at the University of Copenhagen. The project examines the potential for new ways of communicating about the COVID-19 vaccines using VR technology.
“It is all about using new technologies to target specific demographics who remain sceptical of the vaccine programmes. Young men are more likely to be vaccine sceptics than others, and they are also more likely to be familiar with or even regular users of VR technology,” says Aske Mottelson.
In the experiment, subjects put on their VR goggles and find themselves in the waiting room at a doctor’s office. There is a mirror on the wall in front of them, and half of the subjects have a virtual body that is age-appropriate while the other half has a body that is significantly older than their own.
“We want to find out if vaccine hesitancy is influenced by seeing the world through a young or an old person’s eyes. That is one of the advantages of virtual reality technology compared to traditional media. It provides the individual with a radically different perspective on the world,” says Aske Mottelson.
In the doctor’s office, the doctor informs the test subject about COVID-19, what being ill with the disease is like, and how a virus is prevented from spreading using various virtual aides that only VR technology allow. The information is adapted to the test subject based on the age of the avatar (the test subject’s virtual body).
“Test subjects who had older avatars were warned about the personal dangers of not being vaccinated while those with age-appropriate avatars were informed about the danger to the elderly in society,” says Aske Mottelson.
A new tool
So, do we need to prepare for a future in which going to the doctor involves putting on VR goggles? According to Aske Mottelson the experiment is not about replacing traditional ways of communicating about vaccination. It is about finding supplemental strategies that may target specific demographics more effectively.
“VR technology provides users an opportunity to gain a radically different perspective on the world, and it is especially well-suited in the context of life and death matters and empathy for others,” says Aske Mottelson. “The technology allows the individual to connect with other people in a way that few other technologies do.”
As a researcher, he has worked on countless studies with test subjects, but the VR vaccination experiment is so far the only one that has resulted in a barrage of thankful emails from participants after the study was concluded. Some of their testimonials are included in the scientific paper. One goes:
“First of all wow! This study let me think about the coronavirus for a month! And I did my first coronavirus vaccine two days ago and I felt like I saved the world or am part of the solution against the coronavirus.” Theis Duelund Jensen, Press Officer, Tel: +45 2555 0447, email: firstname.lastname@example.org