Using virtual reality to navigate difficult conversations
By: Matthew Bemment
Last updated: Thursday, 29 June 2023
A leading expert at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) has contributed to a pioneering initiative to develop software that could help doctors in navigating difficult conversations.
Doctors and medical students will have the opportunity to use technology developed by Bodyswaps, a British virtual reality company for the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM). The technology is a simulation enhanced by AI software which aims to help doctors by improving their ability to identify anger signals, recognise how different responses can diffuse or exacerbate anger, remain calm in hostile situations and move the situation forward with empathy.
Professor Dame Lesley Fallowfield, Professor of Psycho Oncology at Sussex Health Outcomes Research & Education in Cancer (SHORE-C) at BSMS, is the chief academic consultant on the project, with years of experience in mastering difficult conversations. She says: “Communicating with patients is a core clinical skill, but it’s not something healthcare professionals get much formal training in.
“Anecdotally, we know that healthcare professionals regularly face increased levels of verbal abuse from patients. And medics often say that handling angry patients and relatives is one of their greatest challenges. Learning how to diffuse anger is an important skill, irrespective of the setting.”
Doctors and medical students will wear VR headsets to meet virtual patients and family members in a series of scenarios. The software analytics measure the extent to which learners defuse or aggravate the patient or relative’s anger through the composition of their speech and non-verbal communication, such as eye contact, pace, volume, intonation and hand gestures. Users are then asked to complete a self-reflection questionnaire to see how much their confidence levels have improved from the training.
Dame Lesley suggested the scenarios used in the project, which includes communicating with an upset husband who believes that there is a lack of urgency from the medical team about his wife's breast cancer and an unhappy and uncooperative elderly man who has started to develop urinary incontinence. She also co-scripted the module and even recorded her own avatar’s voice-over at the University of Brighton’s media studio.
Professor Mary Bishop, Director of Learning at the Royal Society of Medicine, says: “The way professionals handle difficult interactions can have a profound impact on the experience of the patient at what is likely to be a stressful time in their life. We expect this technology will improve patients’ experiences and also help with the wellbeing of healthcare professionals.”
Chris Mallet, CEO of Bodyswaps, adds: “VR is a safe space to practise skills that can be hard to learn in the heat of the moment. Our technology gives healthcare professionals an immersive training experience and the chance to put theory into practice.”
A post-Covid-19 pandemic survey of 1,000 GPs showed that almost three-quarters (74%) experienced increased levels of patient abuse compared with before. (Source: Pulse, September 2021).