Exposure to a Virtual Reality Mass-Casualty Simulation Elicits a Differential Sympathetic Response in Medical Trainees and Attending Physicians

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



Prehospital and disaster medicine




disaster medicine; mass-casualty incident; simulation; virtual reality


BACKGROUND: Previous studies have demonstrated the use of virtual reality (VR) in mass-casualty incident (MCI) simulation; however, it is uncertain if VR simulations can be a substitute for in-person disaster training. Demonstrating that VR MCI scenarios can elicit the same desired stress response achieved in live-action exercises is a first step in showing non-inferiority. The primary objective of this study was to measure changes in sympathetic nervous system (SNS) response via a decrease in heart rate variability (HRV) in subjects participating in a VR MCI scenario. METHODS: An MCI simulation was filmed with a 360º camera and shown to participants on a VR headset while simultaneously recording electrocardiography (EKG) and HRV activity. Baseline HRV was measured during a calm VR scenario immediately prior to exposure to the MCI scenarios, and SNS activation was captured as a decrease in HRV compared to baseline. Cognitive stress was measured using a validated questionnaire. Wilcoxon matched pairs signed rank analysis, Welch's t-test, and multivariate logistic regression were performed with statistical significance established at P <.05. RESULTS: Thirty-five subjects were enrolled: eight attending physicians (two surgeons, six Emergency Medicine [EM] specialists); 13 residents (five Surgery, eight EM); and 14 medical students (six pre-clinical, eight clinical-year students). Sympathetic nervous system activation was observed in all groups during the MCI compared to baseline (P <.0001) and occurred independent of age, sex, years of experience, or prior MCI response experience. Overall, 23/35 subjects (65.7%) reported increased cognitive stress in the MCI (11/14 medical students, 9/13 residents, and 3/8 attendings). Resident and attending physicians had higher odds of discordance between SNS activation and cognitive stress compared to medical students (OR = 8.297; 95% CI, 1.408-64.60; P = .030). CONCLUSIONS: Live-actor VR MCI simulation elicited a strong sympathetic response across all groups. Thus, VR MCI training has the potential to guide acquisition of confidence in disaster response.


Emergency Medicine