A scene from the virtual reality program being used by SUNY Broome Medical Assisting students.

A scene from the virtual reality program being used by SUNY Broome Medical Assisting students.

A medical assistant speaks with a patient during an office visit – and discovers, during the course of the conversation, that she is seeking drug paraphernalia. As a healthcare professional, how should he respond to the situation?

SUNY Broome students had the opportunity to test their own responses to this scenario through virtual reality. The project resulted in a research article, “Assessing Interactive Video Systems Used as a Training Tool for Medical Assistants” published in the October 2017 issue of the International Journal of Information Technology; it was authored by SUNY Oswego Computer Science graduate student Francisco Ovalle, SUNY Oswego Computer Science Chair Damian Schofield and SUNY Broome Medical Assisting and Health Studies Chair Erin O’Hara-Leslie.

Students already explore various mock scenarios in the classroom, during which students play assigned roles. However, it can be difficult to stage such a hypothetical situation with students who are familiar with each other; this familiarity can make such situations seem less realistic, researchers found.

Because of this, virtual reality has long elicited interest as a training tool, but tends to be cost-prohibitive, noted O’Hara-Leslie. She and Professor Kim McLain became involved in the project after Schofield reached out to instructional designer Tera Doty-Blance.

“We thought about how it could be beneficial for medical assisting students,” O’Hara-Leslie said of the technology.

O’Hara-Leslie and McLain both wrote difficult scenarios that medical assistants could face; O’Hara-Leslie’s dealt with drug-seeking behavior, while McLain’s situation focused on the management of a medical emergency. O’Hara-Leslie’s scenario was chosen for filming, which took place in a medical clinic on the SUNY Oswego campus.

“Our (medical) offices tell us there are a lot of problems with drug-seeking behavior and how to manage it,” said O’Hara-Leslie, who drew on her own experiences to write the scenario.

Students watched the scenario and then chose responses that, “choose your own adventure” style, sent them off on different trajectories. Along the way, they learned why certain answers were incorrect and what could really happen if such a scenario occurred.

SUNY Broome Medical Assisting students tested the program on a voluntary basis, and were monitored while they used the video training system. Afterward, they were issued a questionnaire to gauge their interaction. Participants found that the observational component – involving two actors they have never seen before – to be highly useful, enabling them to focus on body language, word choice, tone and other indicators of intent.

On their end, instructors saw where they needed to strengthen their weak areas to better prepare students for these scenarios. After all, students go on clinical rotations during their spring semester and may have to face situations involving drug-seeking behavior. O’Hara-Leslie plans to use the virtual reality program in classes at the end of the semester.

“It’s something that’s based on a true story. This is something that can really happen,” she reflected.

Looking ahead, there may be an opportunity to continue the virtual reality project, filming McLain’s scenario for future students.

“It was such a cool project,” O’Hara-Leslie said.