Virtual patients designed to interact with therapy trainees

A California researcher has developed virtual humans with symptoms of clinical psychological disorders to help train a new generation of therapists.

Albert Rizzo, a research scientist at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies, presented the interactive virtual humans at the American Psychological Association's 120th Annual Convention, the APA announced.

Rizzo showed videos of psychiatry trainees interacting with virtual humans Justin, 16, who has a conduct disorder and whose parents are forcing him to undergo therapy; and Justina, a sexual assault victim with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The 15 residents in the video performed a 15-minute interaction with Justina, the more advanced of the two models, asking questions to take an initial history. Justina answered the questions using speech-recognition software, enabling the residents to make a preliminary diagnosis.

Rizzo's work, funded by the Department of Defense, will be further modified for military clinical training. He plans to create more virtual humans exhibiting symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts to help trainees recognize signs of suicide or violence. Eventually, Rizzo hopes to create a diverse library of virtual patients.

In current training, students perform role-playing tasks, then undergo supervised sessions with real patients.

"What's so useful about this technology is novice clinicians can gain exposure to the presentation of a variety of clinical conditions in a safe and effective environment before interacting with actual patients," Rizzo said in a statement. "In addition, virtual patients are more versatile and can be available anytime, anywhere. All you need is a computer."

The DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs have been working to improve access to mental health care for members of the military and their families. Encouraged by the success and veterans' interest in remote services, the VA has announced a goal of providing 200,000 remote consultations this year through videoconferencing.

The two agencies also are experimenting with other alternatives, such as apps for milder cases. And though the DoD and the VA provide a range of services for sufferers of post-traumatic stress injury, a recent report from the Institute of Medicine found those efforts' cost and effectiveness are not well tracked.

To learn more:
- here's the American Psychological Association announcement