Virtual reality patients are teaching med students how to break bad news

How do you deliver bad news? 

It’s an unfortunate question we all grapple with at some point in our lives. But regularly having tough, life-changing conversations is a job requirement for many doctors.

A newly developed technology called MPathic VR helps medical professionals learn how to deliver bad news, like a cancer diagnosis or a loved one’s death. The technology, according to its creators at Medical CyberWorlds, teaches “effective, empathic communication skills” to help better prepare doctors for these common conversations.

A study published in April backs up that assertion, showing that students using MPathic VR increased their patient communication skills and felt more confident in having tough conversations than those using traditional methods.

As med students talk with a virtual character in MPathic VR, they must interpret verbal and nonverbal cues from the character, and respond with the best strategies for facilitating care. The MPathic VR characters are designed to react as any human would, displaying facial expressions, mannerisms, and emotions in tune with the conversation in real time.

During conversations between students and the program’s character, MPathic VR also reads the student’s body language, emotions, and mannerisms, making character react to their cues for a more realistic conversation. And if things go south, there’s always a “reset” button — unlike real life.

Image: MEdical CyberWorlds

It’s not surprising that successful communication is vital in health care, often leading to patients getting the best care and medical recommendations possible. Poor communication between medical staff and patients is a major cause of preventable medical error, according to Medical Cyberworlds. These medical mistakes claim an estimated 210,000 to 440,000 lives every year.

A highly stressful and fast-paced environment can make it more difficult to switch to more thoughtful, empathetic conversations. And much of the pressure is on medical professionals to make sure these conversations go well.

Upset a patient, and they might storm out without proper care. Become too brash, and a traumatic family death may become even more unbearable.

That’s where MPathic VR can make a crucial difference.

Image: Medical Cyberworlds/Youtube

With MPathic VR, students can also work through two other tough scenarios: one with a nurse who is upset about being left out in the workplace, and another navigating family conflict in regards to a patient’s care.

The creators say the communication training technology is more immersive, more effective, and more affordable than current training methods, like mock conversations between peers or multimedia instruction. 

Most importantly, it will hopefully result in improved communication between doctors and patients, potentially saving lives.

[H/T Upworthy]

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