Camden County launches virtual reality training program to teach people how to use Narcan for drug overdoses

The virtual reality training program is a nine-minute video that can be viewed on virtual reality headsets, Android smartphones, and online.

Listen 1:21
A person holds a box of Narcan spray

Displayed is one of the boxes of the overdose-reversal drug Narcan at the 104th Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Two women are crouched over their coworker, who is lying unconscious on the kitchen floor of the restaurant where they work.

“He’s not breathing, and his pulse is really slow,” one woman said to the other.

The women suspect their coworker might be experiencing a drug overdose, so they break open a box of Narcan, an opioid overdose reversal medication, and spray one dose into his nose.

This wasn’t a real drug overdose. Although it’s based on real situations, all the people in the kitchen are actors and their lines are scripted. A person wearing a virtual reality headset is viewing the scene as if they were there in person.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The experience is part of a new training model in Camden County, New Jersey, where officials and public health experts are trying to educate people on how to use Narcan, a brand of naloxone, to prevent overdose deaths.

A volunteer looks into a VR viewer.
Volunteers try out a new virtual reality training program on when and how to use naloxone, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose. The program was developed for Camden County, New Jersey, in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania. (Nicole Leonard / WHYY)

The goal is to bring the virtual reality training program into schools, workplaces, and private homes and increase the likelihood for someone to use the reversal medication when needed.

“If people don’t feel comfortable nor have the knowledge on how to use Narcan and when to use Narcan, all the Narcan in the world isn’t going to help us,” said Camden County Prosecutor Grace MacAulay.

About 354 people died in Camden County from drug overdoses last year, according to state data. County officials said another 247 people have overdosed and died so far this year.

The county has worked to expand Narcan access by installing emergency “naloxboxes” in schools, libraries, transportation centers, and in other public spaces.

People can get an individual supply of Narcan or generic naloxone at local pharmacies across the state.

Although it’s an easy medication to use — each dose is administered as a nasal spray — MacAulay said experts have heard from people who fear they may use it incorrectly or on someone who doesn’t need it.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The nine-minute virtual reality training program goes over how to identify a potential opioid overdose, steps on how to administer the spray, how to time a second dose if needed, and simulates conversations with emergency responders who are called to the scene.

Adults and children can access the training with virtual reality headsets, on Android smartphones that can convert to virtual reality headsets, and online where users can toggle through the scene in 360-degree views.

The training was developed in partnership and collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing and Annenberg School for Communication. It was funded by a 2022 Overdose Data to Action Operation Helping Hand grant from the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General.

Kyle Cassidy, digital design specialist at Annenberg, said this was a prime opportunity to merge new technology with public health education.

“[Virtual reality] is a novel experience right now,” he said. “In the future, fewer people will want to go to YouTube to look at Narcan training videos, but right now, you can say to a room full of schoolkids, ‘Hey, does anyone want to check out VR and watch this video?’ And they will.”

A volunteer looks through a VR viewfinder.
Volunteers try out a new virtual reality training program on when and how to use naloxone, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose. The program was developed for Camden County, New Jersey, in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania. (Nicole Leonard / WHYY)

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania studied naloxone virtual reality training versus traditional in-person training. They found that learning through virtual reality was just as effective as in-person workshops, according to 2020 trial results published in Drug and Alcohol Prevention journal.

Ann Marie Hoyt-Brennan, simulation education specialist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, said virtual reality training can be a good alternative option for businesses, organizations, or schools looking to save time and resources.

“In addition, the virtual reality component can really immerse people in the actual setting,” she said. “This really does enhance the learning experience with the trainee and increases engagement.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use, SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24-hour hotline that offers referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Call 1-800-662-HELP for more information. 

In New Jersey, people seeking addiction assistance can call 1-844-ReachNJ (732-2465) for free support services. Camden County residents with a substance use disorder can call the county Office of Mental Health and Addiction at 856-374-6361.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal