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Intelligent computer avatar helps transform healthcare training

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Curtin University has developed a life-like computer-simulated ‘avatar’ of an elderly Australian gentleman with dementia which has the potential to improve the pre-clinical skills of healthcare students and reduce pressure on the current healthcare system.

Dr Janet Beilby of Curtin’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 which 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.”

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.


“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 that the student is supported and educated with increasing levels of independent responsibility in their management of medically challenging communications,” Dr Beilby said.

“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.

Feedback is also 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.


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