Virtual Reality in the Medical World

By Morgan Spehar

The world of virtual reality is expanding. Where you could once only play a few games on an incredibly expensive piece of headgear, you now have options: watch a YouTube video on your phone in the $20 Google Cardboard, or watch Netflix from the comfort of a $20 million ski chalet on the new Oculus Quest 2. Advancements in virtual reality technology have made it more accessible than ever – making it easier than ever for faculty at Ohio University to look at VR beyond the world of entertainment.

Sherleena Buchman, who holds a doctorate in instructional technology and is an assistant professor in the Ohio University College of Health Sciences, started thinking about virtual reality when her children started playing with a PlayStation headset. Buchman has been a nurse for over 20 years, and she began wondering if VR could benefit the medical field.

One of the first possibilities she thought of was using VR to teach students and community members about NARCAN.

“They started a clinical experience where a person came in [who] had overdosed,” Buchman said. “I was watching the mom in the clinical and she just had no idea what she could have done, and I started thinking about NARCAN and how we could really do more to teach about that.”

NARCAN is the brand name of naloxone, a medication that can treat an opioid overdose in an emergency. In southern Ohio, a region plagued by the opioid epidemic, Buchman thought that virtual reality could be an avenue for quickly teaching community health workers what it’s like to be in an overdose situation and how to most effectively react. 

She approached John Bowditch and Eric Williams of the Gaming Research and Immersive Design (GRID) Lab at Ohio University with her idea, and together they created a pilot virtual reality experience centered around an opioid overdose. Buchman noted that her VR simulation is not animated, but looks more like an immersive movie with real actors to make the experience more impactful.

“I want this to be real and meaningful because I believe that when someone experiences something, it stays with them longer,” she said. “I know that simulation is an effective teaching tool, but I need to hit more people, and if I have a class of 200 students, I want them to all have the exact same learning experience.”

One of the three NARCAN-related simulations that Buchman has helped create demonstrates what it could look like if a student overdosed in their dorm room. Those who are undergoing the training slip on the VR headset and become a fly on the wall. 

In the simulation, the overdose patient lies on one side of the room while students walk by in the hallway. The dorm room lights shine when the headset wearer looks up and the floor is there when they look down. Other people in the room have a conversation and bystanders have their cameras out, recording the overdose in the doorway, just like a real scene. 

“It really places you in the scene, so it’s a very immersive experience,” Buchman said. 

Buchman isn’t the only person at Ohio University to think about using virtual reality to train future medical professionals. Ashley Crow, a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) and assistant clinical professor at Ohio University, has worked with the GRID lab to create a library of about 30 two-minute videos that can be viewed on a computer or a virtual reality headset. In contrast to Buchman’s VR creations, which have been used both in the classroom and to train those in the community, Crow’s videos specifically target physical therapy students. 

Image courtesy of Ashley Crow

“This library is a collection of videos of a particular environment,” Crow explained, “and that environment is the acute hospital. Physical therapy students have a hard time visualizing what kind of decisions they would make

and understanding the logistics of a hospital room, which is a huge part of maintaining safety when we’re doing a patient encounter in a hospital setting.”

One of the main benefits of using virtual reality to train medical students is that the students can let their emotional responses to high stress situations play out before they enter an actual hospital. This allows them to experience stress and their emotions in a safe space before they’re anywhere near a patient, hopefully making it easier to adjust when in a real life situation. 

Virtual reality also allows medical students to think critically about their environment. Crow said that she prods her students with questions about the surroundings they see while they’re immersed in the short scene. Being able to figure out the physical barriers in a room that could inhibit a therapy session could train physical therapy students to be more comfortable in a hospital. 

One student told Crow after using the scenes, “Virtual reality was more helpful in the beginning for me as a way to assess a situation and make a game plan. After getting better at that, it was more beneficial to me to physically practice in the lab and get better with hands on work. All three really helped build my confidence for patient care and better prepare me to succeed in clinical!”

Virtual reality in the classroom is a form of experiential learning, similar to the clinical experiences that medical students have to complete. But replacing all medical training with VR is a long way off. For now, most virtual reality simulations are immersive but not interactive, so students can get a feel for an experience but can’t practice any skills. 

All of Crow’s scenes are limited to observing a patient in a hospital bed, but she hopes to expand the collection eventually adding a second library that involves patient evaluations and treatments. Buchman is also looking to expand and introduce new situations beyond opioid overdoses. As VR becomes more common and less cost-prohibitive, she believes that more and more professions will begin turning to virtual reality to train their acolytes. 

“I think that VR is really the wave of learning for the future,” Buchman said. “I think that if we really put our efforts into creating virtual reality simulations so that as our learners are at home, they can really feel like they are immersed in the situation and we can enhance [the] learning experiences that we’re providing at Ohio University.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s