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The Future of Healthcare: “Using VR to treat PTSD” with founder Deborah C. Beidel, Ph.D., ABPP

As a part of my series about “The Future of Healthcare” I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah C. Beidel, Ph.D., ABPP. Deborah C. Beidel, Ph.D., ABPP, is the founder and director of UCF RESTORES® at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Beidel also serves as the UCF Psychology and Medical Education trustee chair and Pegasus professor. […]

As a part of my series about “The Future of Healthcare” I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah C. Beidel, Ph.D., ABPP. Deborah C. Beidel, Ph.D., ABPP, is the founder and director of UCF RESTORES® at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Beidel also serves as the UCF Psychology and Medical Education trustee chair and Pegasus professor.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

On Oct. 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts entered a one-room schoolhouse in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He told the boys to get out before lining up 10 young girls, shooting each of them in the head at point-blank range and, ultimately, killing himself.

On that day, I was serving as the chief psychologist at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Half of the girls ended up in our emergency room and I spent the following months working through the aftermath. I cried with the families, dealt with the media and spent a lot of time with the first responders and medical personnel that responded to and treated the victims, all of whom were affected by this horrific, tragic event.

What I will never forget, and what ultimately led me to pursue my current line of work, were the acts of courage and resilience that stood boldly in the face of this tragedy. The oldest girl who stepped forward and said, “shoot me first,” in an attempt to buy time for the younger girls. The women from that community who, on the night of the shooting, took food to the wife and children of the man that murdered their daughters. The Nickel Mines population that represented more than 50 percent of the people at Roberts’ funeral … the emphasis placed on restoration and reconciliation in that community remains unforgettable to this day.

Following that event, I knew I would be devoting the rest of my career to understanding trauma, as well as its aftermath, and doing my absolute best to advance its treatment.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Looking back, one of the most interesting stories also served as a pivotal moment for UCF RESTORES that really changed the trajectory for our organization and for those we serve.

When UCF RESTORES first started providing PTSD treatment, we offered a 17-week outpatient program developed for veterans of the Vietnam War. As we applied it to the treatment of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, the program was successful, but it relied heavily on traditional outpatient exposure therapy and was very time intensive.

In 2011, as I did every year, I went back to Fort Detrick to report on the efforts of our funded research program. That year, the colonel in charge pulled me aside and shared his concern that, while the program was working well for veterans, it would not work for active duty personnel; 17 weeks was simply too long for them to be out of pocket.

So, I was presented with the challenge of taking a successful 17-week program and condensing it into an even more successful shortened treatment — a challenge that I was ready to meet. We settled on 21 days as that timeframe would allow us to deliver the same program without losing any of the critical ingredients.

Many people thought it was crazy to try and implement such an intensive treatment for combat-related PTSD; there was concern that it would lead to increased suicidal tendencies or substance abuse. Exposure therapy carries the risk of taking an emotional toll on participants, as you’re recreating the scenario that caused their trauma and having them imagine that event for an extended period of time.

However, we took incredible care in developing this program and I believe our unprecedented success rates speak to that — 66 percent of participants with combat-related PTSD and 76 percent of first responders no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD following treatment. Our approach to treatment, combining emerging technology with one-on-one and group therapy sessions, has changed the game for those impacted by traumatic events.

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

Following the development of our intensive outpatient program, UCF RESTORES has seen incredible success with participants, from veterans and active duty military to first responders and survivors of mass shootings.

However, until this point, we’ve relied on a third party for the virtual reality (VR) element of our exposure therapy approach. Now, with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, we are developing our own proprietary VR technology. Once the technology is in hand, we will be able to precisely recreate the traumatic scenario of each participant — no longer relying on pre-formatted software — bringing the personalization of our treatment to a completely new level.

How do you think this will change the world?

UCF RESTORES was founded on the mission to change the way the world views, understands and treats PTSD, and this new development will allow us to achieve our mission in entirely new ways.

From a treatment perspective, this is a game-changer. The closer you can bring someone in to their traumatic event, the more effective treatment will be. With our own technology, we will be able to recreate every element of the patient’s perspective — including sights, sounds and smells — within a matter of hours.

Beyond our ability to help people suffering from PTSD gain back control over their lives, we will have the power to help eradicate the stigma that surrounds the disorder as our program continues to grow and gain public awareness.

We live in an age of terror and turmoil — both domestically and abroad — and, while it’s so important to remember those who lost their lives, we can’t lose sight of the hidden victims behind the scenes. So many of our veterans, active duty military and first responders are suffering, and my team is working tirelessly to help them take back control and restore a sense of normalcy in their day-to-day lives.

The only silver lining to be found in the trauma caused by ongoing wars and the near-daily mass shootings is the ability to provide the front-line heroes that dedicate themselves to saving the lives of others with the help they need.

PTSD knows no boundaries — it affects people of all nationalities, beliefs and walks of life. As UCF RESTORES continues to raise awareness and scale up — statewide and nationally — I really believe we’ll be able to change how the world approaches treating and understanding the disorder.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

Honestly, it’s hard to see any drawbacks in helping save lives and providing those suffering from PTSD with options, understanding and knowledge that they may not have otherwise.

However, there is one potential misconception I’d like to clarify. VR is not the sole method of treatment; it’s simply a tool that makes up a piece of the puzzle. The power technology — like VR — brings to the table is undeniable, but we cannot lose sight of the importance of the human element, in the form of personal therapy, cognitive understanding or otherwise. No matter how far technology advances, it cannot replace certain human elements that are crucial to the treatment of ailments like PTSD.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

The morning of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, I got a call from the City of Orlando Fire Department, asking for our help for first responders on the scene of the massacre. In the year that followed, we saw more than 45 first responders, as well as survivors and victims’ families, all of whom were in deep distress and suffering from PTSD.

As we worked through our intensive outpatient program with each participant, we realized the need for more customizable VR scenarios. Remember, until this point, our participants were primarily veterans and active duty military and the scenes we had at our disposal were tailored to their experiences … IED explosions, village gunfire attacks, etc. As we were relying on these pre-set scenarios, we didn’t have visuals that would work for our Pulse participants; at the time, we relied on smells (alcohol or smoke) and sounds (club music and iPhone “marimba” ringtones) that we could download from the internet for our VR cues in the exposure therapy process.

While we were still able to successfully treat victims of the Pulse incident, the visual VR component of our treatment was limited and that was extremely frustrating. The process of navigating those limitations really served as the “tipping point” or catalyst for what we are developing now.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

The greatest needs of UCF RESTORES go hand in hand: advocacy and funding.

Our services are, and we hope always will be, provided to participants at no charge. We are not here to make a profit — we are here to make a difference. But, in order to affect change on a wider scale, we need people to know UCF RESTORES exists and to become advocates for our cause.

We’ve been blessed to receive a significant amount of government funding, as well as some private donations. But, as we all know, funding for government and military is limited. To truly scale up, we will need to reach new audiences that believe in what we do and are able and willing to help us advance.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Learn to speak in a common language and drop the jargon. Especially in a field like mine, it can be really difficult to get your point across if you speak a technical language. Psychologists are trained to speak in terms of “probability of significance,” qualifying what we do and looking at the potential limitations of studies, but the public wants to know the bottom line.
  2. I really started to wrap my head around this when I realized I couldn’t explain my dissertation to my parents. I’ve had to figure out how to communicate my mission and vision in a way that resonates with others.
  3. No one does anything alone … although many people try! Throughout my life, I’ve learned that the people who are the most successful are the ones who aren’t going it alone. Fortunately, I’m incredibly blessed to be surrounded by a brilliant, forward-thinking team that comes together to deliver our absolute best.
  4. Sometimes there is too much candy in the candy store. In a field ripe with new and emerging opportunities, I’ve learned that — until I can expand the time-space continuum — I simply won’t be able to “sample” each new idea or partnership that comes along. It’s important to stay open to new opportunities, but to keep your focus and avoid distractions.
  5. Dogs have a better sense of time management than we do. If you’re a dog owner, you have a constant reminder that there’s always time to play. Especially in the U.S., we push ourselves so hard to finish work before taking any time for a break. I find that, sometimes, my best ideas come when I’m not directly focused on them. For example, some of the best portions of my dissertation popped into my head when I was in an aerobics class. The bottom line is: Don’t force yourself to be brilliant. Take a break once in a while.
  6. You will never be finished, but you can be satisfied with what you have done. I’ve found that I have to stop trying to finish everything by the end of the day … it only serves to keep me up at night. If you can look back at the end of the day and reflect on what you’ve accomplished, you can rest on a good day of work and get some sleep.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

My best advice would be to remain passionate about your work while staying flexible. Look for opportunities that could push you in a slightly different direction, out of your comfort zone. For me, providing treatment for Vietnam veterans with combat-related PTSD is one example. In the 1990s, I was developing a treatment program for a different anxiety disorder. A colleague thought my work might be applicable to the treatment of Vietnam veterans and, at that time, there were no effective treatments available. Treatment of veterans and PTSD was out of my comfort zone at that time, but I could still see the possibilities. So, we decided to collaborate and the rest, as they say, is history.

One of my guiding principles is a quote attributed to Thomas Edison: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Keep your mind open and eyes peeled for moments that could create new pathways and bring about new opportunities. Be true to what fuels you while staying aware of new developments that could bring that fuel to new heights.

I also believe that, if what you’re doing is in service of the common good — helping people and supporting our communities — you are paving the way for a “future-proof” career.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

If I received $1 million today, I would invest it in scaling up UCF RESTORES’ treatment methods and technology as far as the money would take us. The further we expand, the greater our potential is to reach those who need our help.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

First and foremost, I’ve always strived to prioritize integrity — to make sure I can get up and look myself in the mirror.

I’ve also learned that you sometimes have to prioritize listening to your heart over your brain. If I had always listened to my analytical side, I probably wouldn’t have showed up in full force when we got the call for Pulse because my brain would have prioritized the immediate fact that we didn’t have the money to provide support. My heart told me it was the right thing to do for our community, and that instinct has proven true.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

In leadership, everyone talks about the importance of teamwork and delegation. But one thing I’ve really learned is that, if you have the right team in place, you can’t truly manage your own time if you don’t properly leverage the time of others. This means understanding the strengths of each team member, as well as their individual areas of growth, and how those can be used to compose the most cohesive and successful unit possible.

Essentially, your success is intertwined with the success and empowerment of your team members. Take the time to get to know them, to understand what drives them. It’s your best bet for ensuring the success of your organization.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂

As we continue to expand on our research and treatment, extending beyond military to first responders, I’d like to highlight how great the need is for our behind-the-scenes heroes — each year, more first responders commit suicide than die in the line of duty. In just two months, 2019 has seen 26 mass shootings (and counting).

It’s so important to remember the men and women that put their lives on the line for us and are sworn to protect us. The trauma that they witness every day is equal to that experienced by those serving in our military, and our first responders don’t have access to institutionalized treatment centers, such as those made available by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Thank you for your service” is no longer enough. We need to be there to provide assistance to those individuals who allow us to live safely and securely in our homes and communities. UCF RESTORES’ passionate team is ready to provide that assistance and has already seen unprecedented results.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

On Facebook @UCFRESTORES and on Twitter @UCF_RESTORES.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.


Deborah C. Beidel, Ph.D., ABPP Bio:

Deborah C. Beidel, Ph.D., ABPP, is the founder and director of UCF RESTORES® at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Beidel also serves as the UCF Psychology and Medical Education trustee chair and Pegasus professor.

She received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Pittsburgh and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in clinical research at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Beidel is an American Board of Professional Psychology diplomate in clinical psychology and behavioral psychology.

She is the author of more than 275 scientific publications, including journal articles, books and chapters on the treatment of anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Beidel has been the recipient of over $31 million in research funding throughout her career.

Her recent work focuses on developing effective treatments for PTSD for veterans, active duty personnel and first responders, utilizing technology to enhance those treatments into standard clinical practice.

Currently, she is the principal investigator of a research program, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, conducting a randomized controlled trial for the treatment of combat-related PTSD in active duty military personnel; she is also leading a second U.S. Department of Defense contract to develop a virtual reality tool that will further enhance the treatment of PTSD in military and civilian populations.

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