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Avatar helps students communicate with patients

Media release

Psychology and speech pathology students at Curtin University are developing their patient empathy skills through ‘real life’ learning with the help of the avatar Jim, an elderly Australian farmer with mild dementia.

With 50 different possible verbal and non-verbal real-life responses, Jim allows students to interact and practice with a range of responses they are likely to receive from patients in their clinical placements and careers.

A recent collaborative study led by Dr Janet Beilby, from Curtin’s School of Psychology and Speech Pathology, investigated undergraduate speech pathology students’ self-rated communication skills, knowledge, confidence and empathy across simulated and traditional learning environments.

In this research, the students were randomly allocated to one of three communication partners: a current nursing home patient; an older actor trained to portray an elderly patient; or virtual patient Jim and engaged with them for up to 30 minutes. The students completed their self-assessments one week before the conversational interaction, and then immediately after.

Dr Beilby said many students wanted to gain practical experience working with patients to build their confidence and proficiency with practitioner and patient communications prior to commencing their clinical placements. Interacting with Jim allowed them to better prepare for these real life situations.

“Jim gave them practice and real experience in what a challenging conversation with an elderly client would be like and made them think about how they would respond appropriately in certain situations,” Dr Beilby said.

“When speaking to Jim, he might not answer some questions or he might become angry or cry when pressed for information, which adds to a realistic experience for the students.”

Study results showed that at various times, students thought the avatar was more challenging to communicate with than human patients and the students generally had to work harder to build rapport and empathy in this virtual clinical exchange.

“It was harder for the students because there isn’t the same opportunity with an avatar to use comforting cues, such as nonverbal reassurances that express empathy, and it is more difficult to read subtle, intimate body language,” Dr Beilby said.

“Using Jim allows students to develop essential verbal communication skills with potentially difficult individuals in a way that is otherwise hard to teach without practical experience.”

Dr Beilby said the next development for Jim will include artificial intelligence and voice recognition software. Other future plans include having Jim placed in a virtual hospital bed to help students learn how to prepare for and conduct bedside assessments.

“We recently gave Jim an avatar wife, Moira. They live together in an independent unit in an aged-care facility.

“While Moira mostly placates Jim or pulls him into line, she can also pose other challenges for students – not only having to deal with a patient’s reaction, but also the reaction of the patient’s carer or loved one,” Dr Beilby said.

“Together, Jim and Moira allow standardised, safe, confidential, repeated, self-learning opportunities for students.”

Dr Beilby said advanced communication skills were vital for allied health professionals, yet students often had limited opportunities to develop these essential pre-clinical skills.

“The demands of increased clinical placement hours in a climate of constrained budgets, limited placement availability and growing student numbers are combining to cause a shortage of prospective placements,” Dr Beilby said.

“As such, many educators are considering the potentials of alternative training methods, such as simulated learning.

“The potential for Jim, or other avatars, extends well beyond the healthcare system, because although he is not real, he creates a real learning experience for students,” she said.