Darrell Pryor, news photographer for WRAL TV, utters a “wow” and smiles as he removes the virtual reality goggles during the first VR demo given by Quintiles to news media about its new VR initiative.

But Quintiles isn’t playing games.

It’s aiming to improve the clinical trials process as part of a drive for digital health. “We feel we are out there at the edge,” says John Reites (pronounced “Reets”), the Quintiles exec leading the VR charge. “It’s fun to watch people experience it. People come out of the experience different.”

Indeed, they do. The Skinny can attest to that claim, as can Pryor.

Fantastic Voyage/Star Wars

We both donned the Samsung oculus headset and earphones for a mind-bending, totally immersive 2 1/2-minute video experience at Durham’s towering headquarters adjacent to I-40. As traffic streamed past east and west in the real world, Pryor and I were subjected to a fascinating 360 degrees of video (and sound), including a dizzying, frightening gaze straight down from high above New York City in a helicopter.

Then there’s the adrenalin-charged thrill of being in the cockpit of the Navy’s Blue Angels jets racing near the speed of sound virtually wing tip to wing tip.

And the bump-and-grind of NASCAR leading to a multi-car crash is enough to make you wince. (I did, anyway.)

Not to be forgotten is the mind-bending journey rendering of what it would be like to travel through a blood vessel (Think “Fantastic Voyage – but with Star Wars technology. Catch the video linked with this post.)

The video actually begins with the patient (me, Darrell, or whoever dons the headset) sitting in a hospital bed. Two physicians come in to explain what’s about to happen.

And the wild journey – 360 degrees with a “bull’s eye” in the center linked to your head controlling how the video is moved) – begins.

“This is still so totally new to people. Ninety percent of people say they are aware of VR but only 35 percent have experienced it,” points out Reites, the head of Digital Health Acceleration, who is driving the VR initiative, citing market surveys. But companies everywhere seem to be getting into the VR act, from gaming (such as Epic Games in Cary) to movies. Quintiles, on the other hand, is blending business and fun with the aim of gaining a competitive edge in the delivery of a medical clinical trial experience.

Recruiting tool, not a toy

Reites and a team within Durham-based Quintiles – the world’s largest life science services company – see a virtual reality experience as providing a boost for educating people about clinical trials and convincing them to participate.

“Patient recruitment is one of the biggest challenges we face,” Reites says.

Contract research organizations such as Quintiles must find ways to attract people to participate in drug trials across countries and cultures. Specifically targeted VR programs can help Quintiles address issues based on government, religious, cultural and other challenges, Reites is betting. “Technology,” he points out, “used the right way can break down barries.”

Reites says the company is leading the CRO industry is developing an interactive program to explain what’s involved in a trial – and to help convince them to sign up. “We’re really early,” he notes.

A big fan of VR and all thing tech (notice the “digital health acceleration” titles – he knows electronic medical records and a whole lot more), Reites says he got the idea of using VR at the company where he has worked for 14 years in part by having his three children try out VR goggles.

“Even the 2 year old found the experience to be very intuitive,” he says with a smile. “She put her hand to the side of the goggles, clicked, and off she went.”

VR just what doctor ordered?

So how could his company use VR to drive digital health?

“Eight months ago, I didn’t even know where to start,” Reites recalls. So he used a LinkedIn post to ask for ideas and guidance. The response left him amazed – and convinced that there was already enough VR experience available to help create a business strategy.

“I had more than 70 emails and phone calls in the first 24 hours,” he says. The feedback quickly told him that many other companies see VR as a means of “pivoting” – or redirecting – a business to capitalize on an emerging opportunity.

So why not Quintiles?

The CRO industry is very competitive, after all, with much of the business (INC, PRA, PPD, others) either based in the Triangle or having large operations here. Could VR give Quintiles an edge?

Yes, he believes. For multiple reasons.

  • One: Paitents introduced to a clinical trial through VR “a different engagement with the world. You can’t get distracted (by other sights – all you see is the VR – or sounds – expect for what’s coming through the headphones.
  • Two: Rather than just reading a flat document or watching a flat video about what’s involved in the clinical trial, Quintiles can demonstrate to the patients exactly what will be involved. “They can really focus on what they need to see and learn. We can engage people better.”
  • Three: Patients will find the VR process easy, being able to navigate the experience with a simple head movement or a tap on the goggle control.
  • Four: Stake holders (the pharmaceutical firms signing Quintiles to conduct its trials) can see that their needs are being met.

After showing the VR demo to Quintiles customers and potential customers, Reites sees the lights go on as people emerge from behind the goggles.

“I could use this for X or Y or Z,” he quotes them as saying.

Business, not entertainment

There’s much more to the VR than entertainment, though. Otherwise, Quintiles wouldn’t be focusing on it. This is a business opportunity.

“We do believe this will lead to better patient engagement,” Reites says, using a phrase that is growing increasingly popular in life science. “We feel the patient that is better informed will see the clinical trial experience as something that really happens to them, that this process, this treatment is important.”

Quintiles is still very early in developing a VR program with the help of Horizon Productions,a VR video company in Durham. But the potential of using VR to improve patient recruitment as well as to attract contract research associations (or CRAs – another tough talent category to hire these days at CROs) and perhaps even CRO investigators has Quintiles pushing hard to make a VR CRO program a reality.

“We have already sparked a lot of conversations” with potential clients, Reites say.

And a lot of “Wows!”