Patients more honest with 'virtual humans' than real-life physicians

When it comes to disclosing private information, patients apparently would rather open up to "virtual humans" than their real-life, medically licensed counterparts.

Researchers found that people who believed they were interacting with a computer were more willing to disclose information and respond to questions honestly, according to a new study published in Computers in Human Behavior. Participants of the study also were likely to display their sadness "more intensely" and had a "lower fear of disclosure," than other patients.

Half of the 239 participants were told their conversation was computer-driven and not observed, according to a Pacific Standard article. The others were told they were being watched by a person in another room who was using a computer to ask the questions. In all cases, video images of the participants were recorded to gauge their level of emotional expression.

"The power of VH [virtual human] interviewers to elicit more honest responding comes from the sense that no one is observing or judging," the researchers said, according to Pacific Standard.

Patient dishonesty can be a barrier to care. Last year a Wall Street Journal article reported that 28 percent of patients admit to being dishonest with their physicians--with doctors guessing the number may be even higher. When patients are untruthful, doctors may not have all the information they need to make a proper diagnosis.

Techniques to ferret out whether a patient is lying have been suggested, as have ways to get patients to open up and be honest--but the answer may lie in technology. The study's researchers say computers could help to overcome the barrier.

Computers aren't the only way doctors can use technology get patients to tell the truth, as mobile apps are being developed that can show patients moods and weed out liars.

To learn more:
- see the study
- read the Pacific Standard article