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Virtual world sets scene for real-life safety


Virtual world sets scene for real-life safety

3-D Web site plays up staff disaster readiness

Imagine someone showing up with a suspicious package on one of your hospital floors. Would your staff react quickly, calmly, and correctly, according to your hospital’s policy?

Traditionally, finding the answer to such a question would include conducting a tabletop exercise or full-fledged disaster drill. However, now you can try this scenario in an innovative online application.

Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago ran the suspicious-package scenario in a Second Life virtual world, set up like its real-life facility. Second Life is a 3-D Web site that its users help create.

Children’s Memorial employees used characters, known as avatars, in the virtual hospital and evacuated virtual patients as the event unfolded. By critiquing staff member actions online, hospital leaders determined adjustments to their evacuation plan, unearthing some complications they hadn’t anticipated. But best of all, the virtual scenario allowed employees to practice responding to an escalating incident, says Mary Margaret Crulcich, BSN, MHA, CHS, corporate manager of environmental safety and emergency preparedness at Children’s Memorial. “In this virtual world, we practice and play out scenarios that help leaders and staff determine details such as the number of wheelchairs needed to evacuate safely,” Crulcich says.

The hospital is interfacing with other local emergency responders that also have a Second Life presence, including Chicago’s Department of Public Health and neighboring medical centers. Children’s Memorial officials hope The Joint Commission (formerly JCAHO) will accept these virtual drills as a way to meet the community exercise requirement under EM.03.01.03.

Children’s Memorial used grant money from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response to fund the simulation.

Second Life serves as a social and marketing network where users go to escape from real life and meet like-minded players. According to its developer, Linden Lab in San Francisco, millions of people around the world belong to the site (, which offers free registration and charges for upgrades to one’s world.

The site, which has been open to the public since 2003, is gaining a reputation for being a useful tool for public health and disaster readiness activities, including by the following entities:

  • The Idaho Bioterrorism Awareness and Preparedness Program set up, which documents how hospitals and other responders are enacting virtual disasters and using the information in their real-life plans. Watch the site’s videos for examples of how virtual drills might work at your hospital.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention not only spreads the flu virus around its virtual island for epidemiological research, but also conducts virtual health fairs in Second Life and Whyville ( to promote good advice.
  • HHS unveiled a Second Life island where HIV patients can find information and make decisions about their next move in care and treatment.
  • Neurologists at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston are using Second Life to administer therapy to volunteers to determine the effectiveness of stress-reduction techniques.

“It’s an exciting, innovative way to learn,” Crulcich says. “We don’t look at this as a game, but as a learning tool. What we’ve found by playing out these scenarios is that we get a much higher participation rate among our employees.”


Adapted from Hospital Safety Center, March 2009, HCPro, Inc.