Using Virtual Reality to Increase Flu Shots

Immersive virtual reality experiences may appeal to flu-shot avoidant millennials
virtual reality
(Precision Vaccinations)

Using a virtual reality simulation to show how influenza spreads and its impact on others could be an innovative way to increase flu vaccinations.

According to a new study published on December 2, 2019, by researchers at the University of Georgia (UG) and the Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU), an immersive virtual reality experience may appeal to “flu-shot avoidant” 18- to 49-year-old adults.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 26.8 percent of this demographic got a flu shot during the 2017-18 flu season. 

Glen Nowak, Ph.D., the principal investigator, and director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication headquartered at UG’s Grady College said in a related press release, “Immersive VR increases our ability to give people a sense of what can happen if they do or don’t take a recommended action.”

“We used immersive virtual reality to show people 3 outcomes—how if infected, they can pass flu along to others; what can happen when young children or older people get flu; and how being vaccinated helps protect the person who is vaccinated as well as others,” said Dr. Nowak.

In this study, 171 participants were randomly assigned to 4 groups:

  • a five-minute virtual reality experience
  • a five-minute video that was identical to the VR experience but without the 3-dimensional and interactive elements
  • an e-pamphlet that used text and pictures from the video presented on a tablet computer
  • a control condition that only viewed the CDC’s influenza Vaccination Information Statement (VIS), which is often provided before a flu vaccine is given and describes benefits and risks

The study participants in the VR, video and e-pamphlet conditions also viewed the CDC VIS before answering a series of questions regarding flu vaccination, including whether they would get a flu vaccine.

In the VR condition, participants were provided headsets, which enabled them to vividly experience the information and events being shown as if they were in the story, and video game controllers, which enabled them to actively participate at points in the story.  

Compared to video or the e-pamphlet, the VR condition created a stronger perception of presence – that is, a feeling of “being there” in the story, which, in turn, increased participants’ concern about transmitting flu to others. 

This increased concern was associated with greater confidence that one’s flu vaccination would protect others, more positive beliefs about the influenza vaccine and increased intention to get a flu shot.

Neither the e-pamphlet nor the video was able to elicit a sense of presence nor were they able to improve the impact of the VIS on the confidence, belief and intention measures.

“This study affirms there is much to be excited about when it comes to using virtual reality for health communication,” Karen Carera, senior evaluation specialist at ORAU, said. 

“However, the findings suggest that for virtual reality to change beliefs and behaviors, the presentations used need to do more than delivering a story.” 

“They need to get users to feel like they are actually in the story.”

The low current acceptance of flu vaccination makes it important to identify more persuasive ways to educate these adults about flu vaccination. 

The findings from this study suggest one-way virtual reality can be more effective as it can create a sense of presence or feeling like one is a part of what is happening.

The research was conducted with support from a grant and researchers from ORAU.

Flu vaccine news published by Precision Vaccinations