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Ohio mental health and addiction director experiences OHIO’s VR and its potential for health care 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 about the possibilities of virtual reality,” Criss said. “This is definitely a future-oriented space for us at our department.”

Faculty from Ohio University gave demonstrations to Criss and her team about the University’s cutting-edge virtual reality technology, and what that means for the future of health care and law enforcement.

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

The decision to use virtual reality to convey difficult situations was extremely purposeful and intended to convey a more human element to the complexities faced by those in need of health care, especially in Appalachia. During the simulation, a person putting on the virtual reality goggles will step into episodes in which the characters interact with their health care providers, including doctors, nurses and pharmacists, as well as social workers and families.

“There are animated versions of this I have seen, and to me they are just not as effective,” said John McCarthy, interim dean at the College of Health Sciences and Professions.

The simulation revolves around Destiny, a female in her early 20s 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 starts with Destiny smoking a cigarette and heading to her first doctor appointment for the baby, while her partner fades out on opioids.

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

Criss attested to the gravity of the experience having grown up in Appalachia herself, stating that even the wood paneling on the homes reminded her of her childhood.

The project is designed to educate health care professionals about aspects of Appalachian culture and help them recognize implicit biases that may complicate care to 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.

The virtual reality was created by faculty with the College of Health Sciences and Professions and the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and was developed by the by the Game Research and Immersive Design (GRID) Lab in the Scripps College of Communication, which serves as an innovative and creative center for students, faculty, and staff research and project development. 

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

Faculty then presented virtual reality training designed for Appalachian law enforcement students. The training is part of the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service’s Appalachian Law Enforcement Initiative, an initiative to bring law enforcement and communities together to improve community and police relations. Because distance, small populations and low budgets often hinder law enforcement training in the region, the virtual reality is being employed to overcome those limitations and provide officers with a much more immersive training.

Participants trying virtual reality
During the presentation, participants experience OHIO's virtual reality programs firsthand.

In the simulation, two officers are sent to deal with an Iraq war veteran suffering from an episode of PTSD.

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

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

October 24, 2022
Macklin Caruso