Students practice with simulations

The USC School of Social Work Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families in conjunction with the Institute for Creative Technologies is using state-of-the art technology to improve counseling for military service members and their families through the use of virtual patients.

The technology, which will serve as a key tool for classes  in the near future, will begin its third student testing trail this week.

The virtual patients are artificially intelligent, interactive agents that serve as a realistic clinical representation of a service member, veteran or military family member. The technology provides students with a chance to advance practical skills with realistic client interactions. The virtual patients can speak, express body language, show emotion and offer immediate feedback.

Jan Nissly, a research assistant professor, said the program focuses on training behavioral health providers on how to interview and assess military patients more accurately and effectively.

“A large number returning from having been deployed are not being able to access services [and] the system is overwhelmed,” Nissly said. “Civilian providers are found not up to speed on what it’s like to be a service member and so [returning service members] walk away. They try one time and if it doesn’t connect, there’s no second chance, that’s it.”

Nissly said the technology allows students to work with virtual clients, practicing their visiting skills to see what techniques receive positive reaction.

The new technology is unique to the USC School of Social Work, and no other program offers virtual human beings to train students in therapist-patient interactions.

Though this program is still in the early stages of development, volunteer social work students have participated anonymously in trials testing and critiquing the technology since April.

“We are optimistic that in 2012, we will have the virtual client being used in the classroom with USC School of Social Work’s students as a tool not only for the instructor, but individually as well, where students can go in and practice [with the virtual client] out of class,” Nissly said.

In the past, ICT partnered with the USC Keck School of Medicine to use the VPs in helping train physicians. Because of the need for more complex VPs to provide verbal feedback to help clinicians with interviewing skills, the USC School of Social Work has gathered a new team at ICT called the Natural Language and Dialogue Group to redesign the VP dialogue.