Doctors use virtual humans to teach medical students empathy

Research shows that poor clinician communication skills can contribute to lower levels of patient satisfaction, poorer health outcomes and more complaints.
By Amy Wallace  |  April 27, 2017 at 9:48 AM
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April 27 (UPI) -- A study found that virtual human simulations are helping medical students to learn empathy to improve how they interact with patients and deliver bad news.

Researchers at the University of Michigan and Medical Cyberworlds, Inc., used the virtual human technology called MPathic-VR, a computer application, which allows students to talk with emotive, computer-based virtual humans who can see, hear and react to them in real time.

The computer application assesses the students' body language, facial expressions and communication strategies to produce real-time responses from the virtual human and give suggestions based on the students' strengths and weaknesses.

"Communication is the most important part of the doctor-patient relationship," Dr. Frederick Kron, a researcher in the department of family medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and founder of Medical Cyberworlds, said in a press release. "We found that virtual human simulation was an engaging and effective tool to teach medical students advanced communications skills and, very importantly, that skills in the simulation transferred into a more realistic clinical situation."

Studies have shown that poor clinician communication skills may contribute to lower levels of patient satisfaction, poorer health outcomes, and higher risk of complaints and malpractice claims.

"Finding an effective way to assess and teach advanced health care communication skills has been a long-standing challenge," Dr. Michael Fetters, a family medicine professor at the University of Michigan, said. "Medical learners have a great need for practical, innovative methods to help them master the complexities of health care communication and develop excellent communication skills -- both verbal and nonverbal. Ours is the first-ever research showing that it can be done effectively with virtual reality."

Researchers tested the system on 421 students at three medical schools in the United States, with half the students using the program and half using traditional computer-based learning. Traditional teaching methods involve small groups of learners and use role-playing to teach medical students.

The study was published in the journal Patient Education and Counseling.

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