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'Virtual' Patients New Addition to Psychiatry?

FRIDAY, Aug. 3 (HealthDay News) -- A new generation of "virtual" patients could help train psychologists and psychiatrists, according to an expert.

These computer-based figures can mimic the symptoms of patients with mental-health conditions and interact with therapists, said Albert Rizzo, a research scientist at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies.

Rizzo is scheduled to demonstrate the technique Friday at an American Psychological Association convention in Orlando, Fla.

His presentation includes videos of psychiatry residents engaging with two virtual patients called Justin and Justina.

Justin is a 16-year-old with a conduct disorder who is being forced by his family to participate in therapy. Justina is a sexual assault victim with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

One video showed a psychiatry resident taking an initial history from Justina by asking a variety of questions. Justina's responses -- programmed with speech recognition software -- enable the resident to make a preliminary diagnosis.

Rizzo plans to modify the characters for use in a veterans' study funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. The "virtual" vets might have symptoms of depression or suicidal intent and aid the training of military clinicians, he said.

"As this technology continues to improve, it will have a significant impact on how clinical training is conducted in psychology and medicine," Rizzo said. He hopes eventually to create a comprehensive computer training module that includes a wide selection of virtual patients with numerous diagnoses.

Psychology and psychiatry students initially train by working with other students and supervisors who play the role of patients. This is followed by supervised on-the-job training 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 addition, virtual patients are more versatile and can be available anytime, anywhere. All you need is a computer."

Data and conclusions presented at meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

More information

The National Alliance on Mental Illness has more about mental illness.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: American Psychological Association, news release, Aug. 3, 2012

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