April 24, 2017

Michigan Health Lab: Virtual humans help aspiring doctors learn empathy

Delivering bad news in a caring way — and coping with a patient’s reaction — is a key skill for doctors. Intuitive technology is helping medical students learn the best approaches

Virtual humans

For medical student Katie Goldrath, the first time delivering difficult health news came when she had to tell a young woman named Robin and her mom, Delmy, that Robin had leukemia.

As she broke the news, Goldrath was conscious of not only her words but also her body language: Was she leaning in, looking the patient in the eye and expressing empathy?

The conversation, though, was just for practice.

Robin and Delmy were virtual humans on a computer screen — lifelike beings that are intelligent and conversational and have the capacity to interact using a wide range of communication behaviors shared in typical face-to-face dialogue.

Such intuitive interactions could help aspiring doctors better prepare for difficult and emotionally charged encounters with patients and hospital colleagues, according to a study recently published by researchers from Medical Cyberworlds Inc. and the University of Michigan in the international journal Patient Education and Counseling.