UArts and Jefferson University Partner on Emergency Medicine Study

December 10, 2020

Two storied Philadelphia universities—both renowned for heralding the transformative power of creativity—are partnering in order to reduce physician burnout in emergency medicine settings. The collaboration is supported by a grant awarded by the Emergency Medicine Foundation and HKS Architects. The purpose of this funding, as detailed on the HKS website, is to “help reimagine how emergency departments are designed by fostering innovation in an environment that has remained largely unchanged for decades.” This provides a unique opportunity for the University of the Arts to expand its work using immersive technology to explore the convergence of art, design and science. 

Nearly 60% of emergency physicians report experiencing burnout which can result in chronic exhaustion, health deterioration from stress and the potential for compromised health care delivery to patients. 

"Now more than ever, we must understand and redesign the human experience of frontline emergency rooms," said Stephen K. Klasko, MD, MBA, president of Thomas Jefferson University and CEO of Jefferson Health. "It's a brilliant opportunity to provide much-needed relief and benefit emergency staff and their patients."

The study is distinct in both its approach and its cross-disciplinary team. It will be anchored by Jefferson’s Health Design Lab and the Emergency Medicine department and University of the Arts’ new Center for Immersive Media (CIM), a 5,600-square-foot facility devoted to emerging and new technologies. The project will use high-fidelity virtual reality modeling, conducted at CIM, to analyze the environmental factors of the Emergency Medicine department at Thomas Jefferson University. 

Environmental factors such as lighting, presence of windows, access to nature, aesthetics and imagery, ventilation, space, circulation and wayfinding, noise, and ergonomics have been proven to correlate with levels of stress, fatigue and low job satisfaction in other healthcare settings, but have not been explicitly studied within emergency room settings—in part due to the complexity of studying an active and highly trafficked emergency setting. Leveraging virtual reality will help the team study, and later manipulate, the emergency setting’s environmental factors without disrupting the life-saving activities of a currently operating academic emergency department.

“If you have ever been in a busy ER, or seen one on TV, it’s not surprising people working in them frequently burnout. There can be high stress, chaos, noise, crowded halls, poor lighting and a lack of windows or respite areas. In the current pandemic, the impact of poor ER design is felt even more by frontline workers,” says Dr. J. Matthew Fields, principal physician investigator and associate professor of emergency medicine at Thomas Jefferson University.

“For years, people and hospitals have tried to reduce physician burnout, but no one has really attempted to change the environment itself,” Dr. Fields continues. “That’s why we are teaming up with the UArts’ Center for Immersive Media to explore provider burnout in a completely novel way, through high fidelity virtual modeling of the ER space. The goal will be to pinpoint those areas in the environment that create the most stress and apply design thinking principles to reimagine and redesign them.”

Dr. Fields also notes that this novel and collaborative approach will help pave the way for improving healthcare spaces in ways that will benefit providers, staff and patients.

“This is an exciting collaboration in which we are leveraging VR technology for contributing to the effectiveness and well-being of dedicated healthcare providers whose work routines take place in a chaotic, 24/7 environment,” says Alan Price, director of the Center for Immersive Media at University of the Arts and principal design investigator for the study. “The sensory-rich experience of VR has the ability to elicit increased verbal, physical and emotional response to what physicians actually experience in emergency settings. Our VR simulation will allow doctors to ‘step out’ of the moment, and hopefully provide detail that would otherwise be difficult or impossible in the actual environment.”

The multidisciplinary team also includes architects of KieranTimberlake Architecture and health design psychologists of Thomas Jefferson University.

“Staff burnout is a significant issue across the healthcare system. Design can help mitigate stressful conditions and support staff wellbeing, which is critically important,” said Jason Schroer, AIA, principal and health practice leader at HKS. “We are honored to partner with EMF to research design’s potential to ameliorate caregiver burnout.”


Learn more about the Center for Immersive Media