Virtual Reality Brings Students to the Crime Scene

A screenshot from the crime scene simulation in the “Forensic Trends and Issues in Contemporary Healthcare” online certificate program.

A man breaks into a 28-year-old woman’s home and rapes her. When you arrive at the scene to investigate, you find the door unlocked, a roll of duct tape in the bedroom and the woman’s license missing from her wallet.

A 35-year-old sexual assault victim comes to the center where you work as a counselor. She tells you she’s always anxious. She worries that the crime may have been her fault or that it could happen again. When you suggest an intervention, the woman refuses to continue with the interview and leaves the room.

Both fictional scenarios are part of simulations in the “Forensic Trends and Issues in Contemporary Healthcare” online certificate program in Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions (CNHP). This academic quarter marks the one-year anniversary of the simulations. They are akin to “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, with video game-like graphics that let users make decisions and watch the consequences play out.

“Health care professionals have to understand the basic fundamentals of the intersection between health care issues and the legal system,” said Paul Clements, an associate clinical professor in CNHP, who coordinates the certificate program and helped to create the simulations. “For example, proper documentation of a patient’s injuries, or lack there of, can make a big difference in whether an offender is successfully prosecuted.”

Wallet Question
Throughout the simulation, users identify “points of concern” relevant to the crime scene investigation.

The certificate program is one of the only of its kind in the country, since is intended not just for nurses, but a range of health workers, including counselors, educators and clinicians. While online classes are ideal for working professionals, Clements wanted to give students the opportunity to practice their interviewing and examination skills in a format that was as realistic as possible.

Drawing on experiences from his lengthy career as a psychiatric clinical therapist, Clements worked with Drexel University Online and a private vendor to create storylines and scripts for three simulations: a crime scene investigation, a victim interview and an offender interview.

The crime scene lets users move through a home after a stranger has sexually assaulted a woman there. The simulation (that resembles a scene from The Sims) asks students to identify nine “points of concern” that would be relevant in determining the offender’s planning, access and behaviors.

Victim Simulation
In the program’s Victimology course, students play the role of a counselor aiding a sexual assault victim.

The interview simulations ask students to have a back-and-forth dialogue with both a victim and then an offender. Rather than choosing an answer and immediately finding out if it’s right or wrong, the scene plays out based on the user’s choice of responses. At the end of the interview, you receive a score and feedback on your performance.

“You start out with three questions that you can start the interview with. Then, depending on what you choose, this takes you to another three questions,” Clements said. “By the time you get to the end, there are dozens of potential outcomes.”

Kim Palestis, a registered nurse at Jersey City Medical Center, has more than 15 years experience in the Emergency Room. She is often the nurse that volunteers to talk to crime victims’ families, she’s collected patients’ clothes as evidence for police and has counseled trauma survivors. Still, when she worked through the simulations, she realized that even the subtlest changes in language can have an effect on an interview’s outcome.

“When you’ve been a nurse for a long time, you think you know how to speak to people and listen to information. But I had to do that simulation four or five times before I felt like I was really helping the victim,” said Palestis, who completed the certificate program last quarter and is working to earn a master’s degree in nursing.

She says the courses taught her about how her role as a forensic nurse can fit into a larger context.

“The program really opened my eyes about how many different stakeholders have to be considered when doing forensic nursing,” she said. “It’s not just about that patient in that room at that time, but it’s about the bigger picture. The courses have helped me be a better practitioner.”

Clements is a keynote speaker at Drexel’s “Forensic Trends in Health Care” conference being held on the Center City Campus on April 16-17. Interested attendees can register on the College of Nursing and Health Professions website.

Members of the news media who are interested in speaking with Clements should contact Lauren Ingeno or 215.895.2614.


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