Ohio State team turns to virtual reality for emergency scenarios

The Lantern
Ohio State’s emergency physicians have created virtual reality experiences for first responders to prepare for specific emergencies in order to be better prepared for real-life situations. Credit: Ohio State University

Emergency physicians can now practice unimaginable situations thanks to virtual reality advancements.

Emergency physician Nicholas Kman is part of a team at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center creating virtual reality experiences for first responders to prepare for such events like never before. The group received a grant in response to the death of over 30 people following the bombing of a subway in Brussels, Belgium.

The purpose of the VR system is to create an environment where first responders can react to and practice their skills for a potential real-life situation that they would not see every day, Kman said.

“Our goal was to build a training simulation where first responders could learn how to apply lifesaving treatments and triage in a disaster,” Kman said. “These types of events are low in frequency but very high stakes. So, it is important that first responders know what to do.”

The current design is set up for first responders to treat those involved in situations like the subway bombing, but Kman plans to add other mass-casualty events.

“I would like to build more scenarios. I would love to do an earthquake scenario where they have to triage the scene and take care of patients in the rubble,” Kman said. “We’ve talked about an active shooter — maybe a law enforcement-related simulation.”

Kman and his team have trained over 300 people on how to properly use the VR system. Though the situations they practice for are difficult, the VR operating system can be used on everyday devices like a PC or gaming laptop.

Glen Keating, captain of the Delaware County Emergency Medical Services, said first responders are rarely exposed to the same emergencies repeatedly and VR programming helps educate them on the various situations.

“One of the most important parts of mass-casualty incidents, from our perspective, is making sure we are triaging patients and making sure we are sorting who is the sickest and who needs to go to the hospital first,” Keating said. “Then administering lifesaving interventions, right off the bat. These interventions are not long, detailed things; they’re simple, short, easy interventions that have great benefit to the patient.”

Keating said the VR setup was designed well and the training systems in place look similar to the real-life scenario.

“It was super realistic,” Keating said. “We could actually communicate with the patient. It had voice recognition software that could hear what you were saying, and the patients in the simulation will actually react to that.”

For first responders who were unable to participate in the VR experience, Keating said they could get similar training using a computer, with a picture or a short video, though the interactive portions don’t compare.

“A lot of it is what we call tabletop exercises,” Keating said. “Instead of you looking at it through a VR headset, you’re maybe looking at a static picture of watching a short video.”

The idea of VR simulations is still in the first steps, but Keating said he anticipates its ability to prepare first responders for mass-casualty situations will only grow as the system continues to add new scenarios.

“I think where the future is headed is using [VR] to help our people make better clinic decisions,” Keating said. “Every situation is different. We recognize that there is no cut-and-dry answer.”

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