The idea of a clinical visit in a “virtual world” populated by realistic computerized mannequins may seem farfetched. But Ivana Steigman, M.D., offered a glimpse into a potential clinical world of the future at HIMSS12. Steigman is chief medical officer at Thrive Research, a software development company that’s building communications platforms utilizing virtual reality and related technologies.

In the virtual reality setting, a person either navigates a digitized world wearing special goggles that offer a realistic display of a certain setting, or by logging onto a Web site, then interacting with the screen using voice commands.

Steigman demonstrated how the virtual world could serve as a platform for group counseling sessions for alcoholics, for example, with patients logging onto a session being monitored and controlled by a real-life clinician. The participants would show up as avatars, or realistic digitized characters. Stiegman says the application could be useful for a variety of addictive or neurological conditions.

A patient with a nicotine addiction, for example, could be led through a virtualized room full of distractions and “cue exposures,” or triggers that could set off the addictive behavior. In her example, the patient visits a party in full progress, with other avatars smoking tobacco and marijuana, drinking heavily and over-eating. The patient would navigate the scene with their clinician, who could offer therapeutic interventions that help the patient overcome their impulses.

The technology has had limited use thus far in the industry, although a few research articles have explored its utility, she notes. Steigman describes a program undertaken by the Department of Defense to counsel returning vets with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In “virtual Iraq” former soldiers are led through a realistic battle scenario, while a counselor helps them cope and understand their emotions. The technology also has potential application in training physicians, she added, showing a video of a medical student interviewing a virtual patient who had been a trauma victim. With its built-in artificial intelligence capability, the avatar will respond to statements by the physician.


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