Patients More Honest, Open With Virtual Doctors, Study Finds

June 20, 2014 in News

Patients are more comfortable discussing private health matters with a “virtual human,” or computer-created entity, according to a new study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, Pacific Standard Magazine reports.

Study Details

For the study — which was led by Gale Lucas of the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies — researchers recruited online 239 adults.

Each participant interacted individually with a virtual human via a computer screen. The virtual human conducted a semi-structured clinic or hospital screening exam, asking each participant a series of questions about medical issues and specific health symptoms.

The virtual human was programmed to develop rapport with the participants, and, when appropriate, it provided “verbal empathetic feedback” and conveyed “active and empathetic listening.”

Fifty percent of participants were told their conversation was not being observed and was entirely computer-driven, while the other 50% were told they were being observed by a person in another room who was manipulating the computer-created human to ask or say certain things.

For all participants, videos of their faces were recorded and later examined to determine their emotional expressions.  

Study Findings

Overall, study participants disclosed information more honestly and openly when they thought they were speaking privately with the virtual human. They also “reported significantly lower fear of self-disclosure” when speaking to the computer, according to the study.

These findings were supported by participants’ facial expressions.

The researchers concluded that the perception of anonymity was important (Jacobs, Pacific Standard Magazine, 6/20). 

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