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Cincinnati Children's residents use virtual reality to prep for mental health visits

VR cincinnati children's
Posted at 11:44 PM, May 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-10 23:45:17-04

CINCINNATI — We are in the middle of a mental health crisis, and pediatricians at Cincinnati Children's said the only way to combat it is early detection. That's why they've made the decision to mandate mental health in their curriculum for residents.

"I can’t tell you the number of times of the week where a family comes in and say, 'He’s just bad,'" Dr. Rachel Herbst said.

Herbst can handle kids like a pro, but the more than 200 residents she teaches don't have the years of experience she does.

"You walk into a patient room with a resident and you’re hoping they get an opportunity to practice some of the skills they’ve got, or things could go really sideways or there could be no concerns whatsoever," Herbst said.

That's why Herbst and Dr. Joe Real teamed up to create a virtual reality simulation of what they see in about 30% of their behavioral health concern visits.

"What I found is that a lot of providers were having challenges talking to families about certain topics that are traditionally difficult," Real said.

According to the CDC, one in three pediatricians says they have “sufficient training to diagnose and treat children with mental health disorders.” To fix that, Cincinnati Children’s mandated residents’ curriculum includes mental health, so it's not just reserved for those who specialize in it.

"Most families trust their pediatrician and so primary care is the perfect place to really capture this and sort of think about how we can intervene early," Herbst said.

The simulation puts residents in a room with a proctor who controls the mother and daughter character. Afterward, the proctor goes over how the resident performed.

"Providing a safe space to deliberately practice these skills, receive feedback and then replaying cases until you feel comfortable and confident that you can do this in real life is a really powerful tool that virtual reality offers," Real said.

The CDC reports of the millions of children who are diagnosed with behavioral problems, anxiety and depression, only 20% of them get specialized care. On the flip side, nine in 10 children receive regular medical care from a primary care provider.

"We don’t have enough pediatric psychiatrists or psychologists to provide all the support that families need, so pediatricians are really going to be the front," said Real.

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