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Doctors to harness virtual reality to master navigating difficult conversations

With ever-growing pressures on the NHS, dealing with angry or frustrated patients and their relatives has become increasingly common for those working in healthcare. 

But what if doctors could practise navigating angry conversations with patients and their relatives in virtual reality before having to do so face-to-face?

Doctors and other healthcare professionals will get the chance to do precisely that, using technology developed by a British company for the Royal Society of Medicine -  one of the UK's leading providers of continuing learning for healthcare professionals.

Bodyswaps, a virtual reality company, working with educationalists at the RSM, has developed a simulation enhanced by AI software to help doctors to improve 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. 

Doctors and medical students will wear VR headsets to meet virtual patients and family members in emotionally charged scenarios.  One situation tasks them with communicating with an upset husband who believes that there is a lack of urgency from the medical team about his wife's breast cancer. Another situation asks doctors to deal with an unhappy and uncooperative elderly man who has started to develop urinary incontinence.

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.

At the beginning and end of the immersive module, doctors are asked to complete a self-reflection questionnaire to see how much their confidence levels have improved from the training.

Professor Dame Lesley Fallowfield, DBE of Brighton and Sussex Medical School, was the chief academic consultant on the project, bringing rigour and specialised knowledge to the course content. 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.”

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-pandemic survey of 1,000 GPs* showed that almost three-quarters (74%) experienced increased levels of patient abuse compared with before.  

Accessing the module

The new module is available for all RSM members. In the coming weeks, we will share how you can access it using your own devices.

For now, you can book a headset at the RSM Library.

*Source: Pulse, September 2021

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