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Don’t Panic: Pitt Hopes Virtual Reality Can Help People Train For An Overdose Emergency

Peter M. Winter Institute for Simulation, Education, and Research
Screenshot from "Opioid Rescue" an virtual reality simulation that teaches people to administer naloxone during an overdose emergency.

The virtual reality simulation “Opioid Rescue” opens with an unconscious man lying on a basement floor next to an empty syringe.

“The first thing I’m going to do is try to talk to him and see if he’s conscious,” said Grace Mueller, an intern at the University of Pittsburgh’s Peter M. Winter Institute for Simulation, Education, and Research, also known as WISER.

“Are you OK? Wake up!” a female voice asked the unconscious man.

“It seems like he’s not responding so I’m going to try and shake his shoulders,” she said.

Disembodied hands touch the avatar’s shoulders.

Next Mueller calls 911, and then pushes the button that delivers naloxone, the life-saving medication that can revive someone from an opioid overdose. A nasal spray pump floats down to the avatar’s nose.

“Opioid Rescue” was created by WISER researchers and WyzLink, a Seattle-based VR firm. The aim is to teach people to act quickly and not panic during an overdose.

Permanent brain injury can set in within minutes of an overdose, too long a wait for emergency medical technicians to arrive.

“You’ve practiced it,” said emergency medicine doctor Michael Lynch, a contributor to the game. “So, the next time you do it, it will be much easier and take away a lot of the mystery.”

In 2017, more than 735 people in Allegheny County fatally overdosed, making it the fourth record-breaking year in a row for this kind of death. Public health workers have been pushing lay people to learn how to use naloxone as a preventative measure.

“Whenever we discharge patients with the naloxone, we always have a conversation with family members or concerned significant others,” said UPMC psychiatrist Antoine Douaihy, another contributor. “You want them to be there and available in case thier loved one ends up overdosing.”

Eventually researchers would like to take the simulation into the community, to places like libraries, the YMCA, the public health clinics and high school classrooms.

“[People] can practice it on their own, in their own time and their own space, and get feedback that's individualized immediately afterwards,” said anesthesiologist Bill McIvor, the project’s lead researcher.

In the next couple years McIvor said he’d like to eventually include haptics, or tactile sensations, so users can practice administering the medication.

WESA recieves funding from the University of Pittsburgh.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of WyzLink.