Curtin University is using an avatar to train nurses
Curtin University is using an avatar of an older man with dementia to train nurses

VIDEO: A life-like computer-simulated avatar of an Australian senior living with dementia is being used to improve the skills of healthcare students and reduce pressure on the healthcare system.

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.

Dr Janet Beilby of Curtin University’s School of Psychology and Speech Pathology said the Empathy Simulator, 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 that assist in their training and development of patient interaction skills, are severely limited,” Dr Beilby said. “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.”

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 the student is supported with increasing levels of responsibility in their management of challenging communications, Dr Beilby said.

The students communicate with 'Jim', an older man living with dementia
The students communicate with ‘Jim’, an older man living with dementia

“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.

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

According to the team, feedback is being gathered on how the students regard their learning with the avatar and how much motivation, knowledge and confidence they gain from the experience. This research will improve teaching practices and the skills of healthcare graduates, the researchers said.

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