Medical Students Using "Virtual Humans" to Teach Bedside Manner


Medical experts think that successful bedside manner is in decline. That’s a problem because studies consistently demonstrate that doctor-patient relationships strongly influence the patient’s health choices, their satisfaction with their doctor, and the potential of filing a malpractice claim.

In a recent study published in Patient Education & Counseling researchers from the University of Michigan and the digital healthcare company Medical Cyberworlds Inc. (its actual name) provide evidence that aspiring doctors could greatly benefit from training with virtual humans.

They found that when medical students trained with a virtual human simulation designed to “see, hear, and react” in real time to the student’s vocal and body language, their positive bedside manner vastly improved.

The simulation, called MPathic-VR, is able to create real-time responses to what actual humans say by assessing human body language, facial expressions, and communication strategies. It then responds in real time with either a negative or positive response.

Currently, medical students are often trained in bedside manner through role-playing with other students and actors — real humans that likely could be replaced with virtual humans.

Intense situations like the one seen in this video can now be presented in a sort of simulation mode:

To test the effectiveness of MPathic-VR, the researchers assessed 421 students, half of them trained with the simulation; the other used a computer-based learning program that did not include responsive virtual humans.

The students who used MPathic-VR worked through two scenarios, one where they had to break bad news to a patient, and another where they had to interact with a virtual oncology nurse upset with an accidental decision the student made.

“We found that virtual human simulation was an engaging and effective tool to teach medical students advanced communication skills and, very importantly, that skills in the simulation transferred to a more realistic clinical situation,” says lead author Dr. Frederick Kron. “Communication is the most important part of the doctor-patient relationship.”

When the research and control groups subsequently took the advanced objective structured clinical examination, an assessment of practical medical skills used worldwide, the researchers found that those who trained with virtual humans “achieved significantly higher composite scores” than the other group. This study is claimed to be the first to demonstrate the effectiveness of virtual training.

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