Background: For more than a decade, virtual humans have been used in health communication as simple agents capturing and providing information. Today, the use of digital role-play conversations with virtual humans is being increasingly recognized as a research-supported and cost-effective method to drive positive and sustainable changes in behavior, build skills, and change attitudes. With an approach based on research in neuroscience, motivational interviewing, social cognition, and game mechanics these simulations are being used by: 1) pediatricians, to learn how to build intrinsic motivation within children and their parents to reduce childhood obesity, 2) military families, to learn how to motivate their veteran experiencing PTSD or depression to seek professional help, 3) high school students, to help them navigate through a difficult stage of social and emotional development. Recognizing the power of conversations as a tool to change behaviors and attitudes, these applications are designed to provide users with realistic and risk-free environments where they learn and build self-efficacy by practicing challenging conversations with virtual humans. By practicing and receiving personalized feedback, learners gain the skills and self-confidence to effectively manage similar conversations in real life.
Program background: This presentation will overview the neuroscience and social cognition research underlying the effectiveness of role-plays with intelligent, and emotionally responsive virtual humans, as well as relevant learning design methodologies used to develop these simulations. A live demonstration of (1) ChangeTalk, an online and mobile app developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics to build motivational interviewing skills and help health professionals learn to manage challenging family and patient conversations regarding childhood obesity and its attendant risk factors, and (2) Family of Heroes, an evidence-based simulation designed to empower military families with the confidence and skills to speak with their veteran about seeking help for PTSD or depression.
Evaluation Methods and Results: Preliminary usage and effectiveness data will be discussed to examine the effectiveness of ChangeTalk. In addition, this presentation will report results of a peer-reviewed randomized controlled study of Family of Heroes that showed significant and sustained changes in users’ skill, self- efficacy, and behavior, as well as a two-fold increase in the number of veterans who sought support services for PTSD or depression.
Conclusions: Data strongly suggest that the use of online role-play simulations with virtual humans can have a significant and positive impact on a wide-range of health behaviors and attitudes.
Implications for research and/or practice: Health communication is most effective when it provides audiences with skills and confidence in addition to information. Engagement with virtual humans enables individuals and professionals to learn, practice, and improve interpersonal skills within hands-on, skills-driven, and personalized experiences that have been shown to drive meaningful changes in their health behaviors and those of others. Virtual conversations can be used in a wide variety of contexts, from healthcare professionals motivating patients to comply with treatment guidelines, to family members having more effective conversations about health with their loved ones.