Virtual patients help med students learn to communicate difficult medical news

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Virtual reality programs can help medical students improve empathic communication skills, which are critical when conveying difficult news to a patient about their health, according to a study published in the journal Patient Education & Counseling.

For the study, researchers enrolled 421 medical students across three U.S. medical schools. Approximately 210 students completed intercultural and inter-professional communication training using a virtual reality model, while 211 students used a more traditional computer-based learning program. The VR program — dubbed MPathic-VR — allows users to communicate with virtual humans capable of reacting to the user in real time.

After completing the educational scenarios, participants from both groups were administered an advanced communication skills objective structured clinical examination. The VR cohort achieved significantly better results on the exams.

"Finding an effective way to assess and teach advanced health care communication skills has been a long-standing challenge," said Michael Fetters, MD, a family medicine professor at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor and one of the study's coauthors. "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. Ours is the first-ever research showing that it can be done effectively with virtual reality."

More articles on patient engagement: 
New Pennsylvania law requires hospitals to educate caregivers upon patient discharge 
Nurses sitting at the bedside linked to higher patient experience scores 
American Diabetes Association recognizes 1st digital education program

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