Ohio Mental Health and Addictions Director Experiences OHIO Virtual Reality and Its Potential for Healthcare and Law Enforcement Training

Ohio University hosted Lori Criss, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, and her staff for an immersive presentation on the University’s use of virtual reality.

“Today I’m really excited to learn more about the possibilities of virtual reality,” Criss said. “It’s definitely a forward-looking space for us in our department.”

Professors from Ohio University demonstrated to Criss and his team about the University’s cutting-edge virtual reality technology and what it means for the future of health care and the law application.

The first simulation, “Destiny,” simulates the experience of working with Appalachian patients and offers insight into regional values ​​that can inform the best ways practitioners can provide care.

The decision to use virtual reality to convey difficult situations was extremely deliberate and intended to convey a more human element to the complexities faced by people in need of healthcare, especially in Appalachia. During the simulation, a person wearing the VR glasses will enter episodes in which the characters interact with their healthcare providers, including doctors, nurses, and pharmacists, as well as social workers and families.

“There are animated versions of this that I’ve seen, and to me, they’re just not as effective,” said John McCarthy, acting dean of the College of Health Sciences and Professions.

The simulation revolves around Destiny, a woman in her twenties from Appalachia. She’s pregnant, not married, her parents are largely absent, and she’s also addicted to opioids. The simulation plays out like a movie, which begins with Destiny smoking a cigarette and heading to her first doctor’s appointment for the baby, while her partner fades away on opioids.

“It didn’t feel like Hollywood,” Criss said after the experience.

Criss attested to the severity of the experience growing up in Appalachia herself, saying even the woodwork of the houses reminded her of her childhood.

The project is designed to educate healthcare professionals about aspects of Appalachian culture and help them recognize implicit biases that can complicate the care of patients in the region. The series is part of a larger project, “Virtual Reality Simulations to Address Provider Bias and Cultural Competency,” which is funded by a grant from Ohio’s Medicaid Technical Assistance and Policy Program.

Virtual reality was created by professors from the College of Health Sciences and Professions and the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and was developed by the Game Research and Immersive Design (GRID) Lab at Scripps College of Communication, which serves as an innovative platform and creative hub for students, faculty, and project research and development staff.

The project was led by co-primary investigators McCarthy and Deborah Henderson, professor and director of the School of Nursing. Other researchers on the project include Elizabeth Beverly, assistant professor of family medicine at the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine; John Bowditch, GRID Lab Director; and Eric Williams, a professor at Scripps College of Communication.

The faculty then demonstrated virtual reality training designed for Appalachian law enforcement students. The training is part of the Appalachian Law Enforcement Initiative at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service, an initiative to bring law enforcement and communities together to improve community-police relations. Because distance, small populations, and low budgets often impede law enforcement training in the region, virtual reality is being used to overcome these limitations and provide officers with much more immersive training.

Participants trying out virtual reality
During the presentation, attendees experience first-hand OHIO virtual reality programs.

In the simulation, two officers are dispatched to tend to an Iraq War veteran suffering from an episode of PTSD.

The Appalachian Law Enforcement Initiative is designed to engage entire communities, bringing together law enforcement officers, community actors and public administrators in a collaboration to reduce the use of force, teach de-escalation techniques and improve law enforcement outcomes for the community and the police.

To overcome these obstacles, the initiative plans to use virtual reality in its training. Rather than using technology in a traditionally tactical sense, the initiative’s goal is to immerse law enforcement in an experience that can change their perspectives, while creating a structure to engage public decision makers and community leaders. Officers in training wear virtual reality headsets to look around and learn from the training environment, providing a more impactful experience.

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