Virtual Patients Get Psychiatric Evaluations

LiveScience Staff
Virtual Patients Get Psychiatric Evaluations
Virtual patient can mimic the symptoms of psychiatric disorder to help therapists in training practice their skills, as shown above.

Virtual humans may be getting real-world jobs, training psychiatrists.

New technology makes it possible for virtual humans to interact with a therapist via a computer, while mimicking the symptoms of a patient with a clinical psychological disorder, Albert "Skip" Rizzo told colleagues at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., today (Aug. 3).

Videos of conversations between a virtual character and a therapist in training resemble video chats with a character from The Sims, a virtual-reality game. Speech recognition software allows the virtual patients to answer questions, so the therapist can make a preliminary diagnosis.

The virtual patients include "Justin," is a 16-year-old with a conduct disorder who is being forced by his family to participate in therapy, and the more advanced iteration, "Justina," a sexual assault victim who was designed to have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In an initial test, 15 psychiatry residents were asked to perform a 15-minute interaction with Justina. 

Rizzo's lab at the University of Southern California is also developing virtual veterans with depression and suicidal thoughts; they are intended to help train clinicians and military personnel to spot those at risk for suicide or violence.

Over the long-term, Rizzo hopes to create a library of virtual patients representing many diagnoses to be used in training psychiatrists and psychologists, who currently train using role-playing followed by supervised work with real patients.

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