Computer avatars help transform healthcare training

03 September, 2014

A life-like computer-simulated 'avatar' of an elderly gentleman with dementia has the potential to improve the pre-clinical skills of healthcare students.

The Empathy Simulator, developed by Curtin University researchers, is a computer-based program featuring an avatar character named 'Jim', had been developed to address increasing problems in education and healthcare provision in the community.

"Increased numbers of students are entering the health sector, however clinical placements which assist in their training and development of patient interaction skills are severely limited," said Dr Janet Beilby, from Curtin University's School of Psychology and Speech Pathology.

"'Jim', a virtual client, provides a cost-effective way for students to practise and master essential interpersonal and rapport-building clinical skills before they work with real clients."

Showing students the ropes in challenging patient cases

The simulator challenges students to manage complex scenarios, such as putting the client at ease, delivering bad news and managing clients who are agitated, confused, or feeling depressed.

"Initially, the avatar is controlled by a trainer who chooses its responses based on the student's verbal and non-verbal behaviours. This interaction between the student and 'Jim' is recorded for reflection and feedback so that the student is supported and educated with increasing levels of independent responsibility in their management of medically challenging communications," Dr Beilby said.

"This provides standard experiences for all students with the opportunity for repeated practice in a safe environment.

"The aim is for the student to achieve competence before having real-life interactions with the general public."

The training scenarios and the responses of the avatar have been designed by a team of international researchers with over 30 years' combined experience in psychology, communication, behaviour management and software design.

Dr Beilby said the next development for the Empathy Simulator will include voice recognition software to allow 'Jim' to respond automatically to the student without supervisor guidance – allowing portable, safe, confidential, repeated self-learning opportunities.

Empathy Simulator: Curtin develops hi-tech simulations for healthcare trainees