In a first, scientists are using life-like virtual humans to train doctors on how to break bad news and express empathy to patients and their family members.
Researchers created two virtual humans - Robin and Delmy - that are intelligent and conversational, and have the capacity to interact using a wide range of communication behaviours 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, researchers said.
"Communication is the most important part of the doctor- patient relationship," said Frederick Kron, from the University of Michigan in the US.
"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 into a more realistic clinical situation," said Kron, who is also the founder of Medical Cyberworlds, that developed the virtual reality programme.
Research shows that poor clinician communication skills may contribute to lower levels of patient satisfaction, poorer health outcomes, and higher risk of complaints and malpractice claims.
Poor communication is among the most frequently identified causes of events that can lead to preventable patient harm or even death.
"Finding an effective way to assess and teach advanced health care communication skills has been a long-standing challenge," said Michael Fetters, also from the University of Michigan.
"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," said Fetters. "Ours is the first-ever research showing that it can be done effectively with virtual reality," he said.
Researchers addressed this challenge using revolutionary virtual human technology called MPathic-VR. This application allows learners to talk with emotive, computer-based virtual humans who can see, hear and react to them in real-time. The virtual humans use a full range of behaviours expected between two people talking together.
The system assesses learners' body language, facial expressions, and communication strategies, then uses this information to produce real-time responses from the virtual human and provide personalised suggestions based on the learners' strengths or weaknesses. Learners also see their interactions with the virtual human on video, then get the chance to apply what they have learnt. The research was published in the journal 'Patient Education and Counselling.'