Tomorrow’s Psychiatrists Might Be Partially Trained by Avatars

Psychiatrists have one of the toughest jobs in all of medicine. When it comes to evaluating patients, they cannot rely on simple blood tests or medical imaging to tell them what’s going on. They have to attempt to understand each patient by doing a face-to-face that involves asking questions and observing responses. Success is part art and part science. The question is, how do you train future psychiatrists to be good evaluators?

Tomorrow’s psychiatrists might very well be partially trained by avatars if a program in Germany proves successful. Training avatars would revolutionize psychiatry jobs by helping new doctors hone their evaluation skills for months before seeing actual patients.

The research project in question is taking place at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) in Bochum, Germany. RUB is a public university and one of the largest in Germany. Researchers there are leading the charge to change clinical psychiatry through better training methods.

How to Train with Avatars

Researchers behind the RUB project have developed a virtual reality system that utilizes VR headsets and preprogrammed avatars to teach psychiatric students how to evaluate patients based on answers to their questions, inflections and the voice, facial expressions, and more.

Students put on a virtual reality headset before being introduced to a particular avatar. Then the student goes through a learned evaluation protocol. He or she asks questions and the avatar responds. Students are trained to look for certain kinds of facial expressions and compare them to the verbal answers given.

Experienced psychiatrists can recognize and evaluate facial expressions nearly instantly. But that is not all they have to consider. They must also pay attention to tone of voice, posture, what is going on with the eyes, whether or not the patient is restless, etc. Learning to recognize physical response is a big part of the learning process for new psychiatrists.

Researchers hope that avatar training will help new psychiatrists by exposing them to a broader variety of physical and emotional responses exhibited by their virtual patients. They think avatar training might be able to accomplish more than training with real patients.

Unwilling to Be Helpful

The impetus behind the research is the knowledge that human patients are often unwilling to be helpful during training sessions. They know they aren’t seeing their regular psychiatrists. They know that they may never see the student psychiatrists again. The lack of continuity and trust gives patients less incentive to be as helpful as possible.

Training new psychiatrists via interaction with human patients has been the only option for generations. Unfortunately, what students are able to learn from such training has proved limited by the fact that students are not exposed to the full range of responses when dealing with a small number of unhelpful patients. Avatar training changes that.

Exposure to More Responses

As avatars can be programmed to respond in numerous ways, researchers can expose students to more responses in a shorter amount of time. In the future, training staff should be able to customize avatars in order to guide students along a learning path that focuses on their weaknesses and promotes their strengths.

An avatar is certainly no substitute for a human being in terms of interpersonal relationships. But for the purposes of training future psychiatrists how to evaluate everything from facial expressions to body movements, they may prove invaluable.

Tomorrow’s psychiatrists might be partially trained by avatars. From locum tenens clinicians to psychiatrists working at the most prestigious hospitals in the world, they might all enhance their evaluation skills through time spent working in a virtual world with computer-generated patients.