Virtual Humans Can Improve Communication Skills in Medical Students

Samara Rosenfeld
DECEMBER 02, 2019
medical students
Photo/Thumb have been modified. Courtesy of Shutterstock / d13.

Virtual humans could be a promising tool to improve empathetic communication in healthcare, according to a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Medical students who were trained with virtual humans had an objective structured clinical exam score of 0.806, compared to 0.752 for those who were not. Those who were trained with the technology reported three positive themes: Gaining useful communication skills, learning awareness of nonverbal and verbal skills and feeling motivated to learn more about communication.

“(Virtual humans) are a promising strategy for improving empathic communication in healthcare,” the authors wrote. “Higher performers seemed most engaged to learn, particularly nonverbal skills.”

Researchers developed a virtual human-based simulation, MPathic-VR, to train providers in empathic communication with patients. An informatics-based technology, MPathic-VR engages the medical students in a conversation with virtual human characters to train them in verbal and nonverbal communication.

The simulation is designed for students to have authentic and challenging conversations with virtual humans. The system is a computer with a widescreen monitor, a microphone and a Microsoft Kinect sensor to detect nonverbal communication behaviors.

Participants in the study (206) consisted of second-year medical students from three medical schools. Each student was randomly assigned to the control of MPathic condition group.

The system recorded a point value for each exchange the student had with the virtual human and summed points for an overall MPathic-VR score. Students were evaluated on a five-point scale across four domains: Open or defensive, collaborative or competitive, nonverbal communication and an awareness of others.

Students completed an essay about their experience and answered one of five questions about human interactions, understanding nonverbal communication, most important things learned, how to improve the simulation and functional aspects.

Some participants expressed uncertainty about the use of the system due to timing of training with the virtual humans in the system versus actual humans. Other participants had questions about the repetition and were uninterested in communication training in general.
 

Gaining Useful Verbal Skills

Those who used the technology reported gaining strategies for effectively communicating with patients and other providers in real clinical settings. Examples included asking open-ended questions, validating or acknowledging the partner’s feelings with reflective language and remember the importance of an apology.

What’s more, medical students who used the system reported avoiding assumptions, using inclusive language and nonconfrontational phrasing.
 

Increasing Nonverbal Communication Skills

Medical students who were trained with virtual humans said they were more cognizant of facial expressions in conversations, specifically eyebrow movement, nodding and smiling. Participants in the control group also reported more personal awareness about their own fidgeting and twitching.
 

Looking Ahead

Additional research should address how to motivate and engage learners, the study authors suggested. Due to the success, health systems could use this technology to improve the communication skills of their workers.

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