Virtual Human Faces

For the study, Dr Wandner and colleagues randomly assigned 96 participants to either a perspective-taking treatment group or a control group. The participants viewed 16 video clips of virtual humans with standardized levels of pain. They provided ratings on pain intensity and indicated how willing they were to administer opioids based on the perceived pain level. The treatment group then received a brief perspective-taking intervention, during which they were instructed to imagine how the patient’s pain experience may affect his or her life.  The control group was instructed to simply wait for the next virtual human video to load. All participants were instructed to document what they were thinking about during that time.

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Only 4% of participants in the perspective-taking group documented that they considered sex, race, or age of the virtual human when reading the perspective-taking paragraph compared with 33% of those in the control group. The finding was statistically significant (P<.001).

Participants completed the study online and used virtual human faces to assess pain in patients with different demographic characteristics. The use of virtual human faces permits researchers to standardize the pain expressions of each patient and assign different demographic characteristics to the virtual human face, according to Dr Wandner. Therefore, if participants’ pain management decisions differ, researchers can conclude that the difference is due to demographic characteristics instead of how the pain was expressed.

“The advantage of using virtual humans in this type of research is that it removes the variability,” Dr Wandner said. “Virtual human technology also can be used as a training tool to expose providers to patients they might not typically see in their practices.”

Diverse Virtual Patients

In the study, participants’ pain management ratings were obtained both preintervention and postintervention. The researchers found that participants were more willing to recommend opioids postintervention.

A limitation of the study was the use of laypeople. Although they cannot prescribe opioids, Dr Wandner stressed that they still play a role in pain management for their own care or the care of a loved one. Their willingness to recommend opioid use increased over time. It is unclear what caused the change, but it may have resulted from being exposed to diverse virtual patients that increased their awareness or empathy.