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To Treat Depression, Researchers Invite Avatars to Discuss Their Problems


To Treat Depression, Researchers Invite Avatars to Discuss Their Problems

Photograph by Geoff Manasse/Getty Images

(Corrects date and location of conference in third paragraph.)

Late last year, a small group of patients diagnosed with clinical depression gathered to speak with a medical researcher and with fellow patients about their condition. Some were suffering from eating disorders or alcoholism. Others had family problems. For some of them, getting out of the house was an enormous emotional challenge. But once inside the room where the focus group was held, they began to relax, open up, and share their problems.

The breakthrough? The focus group was conducted online in a virtual meeting room with the patients selecting 3D computer-generated avatars to represent themselves.

The findings of this virtual focus group surprised the researchers. “Patients were more comfortable in revealing honestly their symptoms. We could get them to engage more constructively and converse more quickly with each other compared with face-to-face sessions,” said Frank Gabbert, senior vice president and director of the qualitative practice at Lieberman, a market research firm that works closely with pharmaceutical companies. The patients who participated in the virtual sessions were quicker to convey emotion and shared significantly more personal information about their symptoms, the researchers found. The findings of the study, entitled The Patient Unveiled—Generating Insights in a Virtual World, were presented at a pharmaceutical trade conference earlier this year in New Jersey.

Gabbert, who has several years of experience working with pharmaceutical companies on patient research projects, says that the ease with which the patients, as represented by their avatars, opened up holds big promise for the medical community. It can take as long as eight years of therapy for female patients of clinical depression and 12 years for male patients to reveal enough about themselves to be properly diagnosed with depression, he said. Shortening that cycle has long been a goal of medical experts and their patients.

Gabbert and his team at Lieberman were drawn to the idea of using avatars to treat clinical depression from some of the early work they heard about with Second Life, the pioneering virtual world that has declined in popularity in recent years, but still has its devotees. For years, Second Life users wondered if the virtual world environment could help patients and their families cope with depression, dementia, and other psychological disorders.

Pharmaceutical companies, too, were wondering if avatars could improve treatment and diagnosis in this area. Steve Chasin, Lieberman’s director of global pharmaceutical practice, said the research firm was approached last year by a major drug maker to put the plan into action. “People live with depression for a long time before they get it diagnosed. They are a bit inhibited or even ashamed to speak about it,” Chasin said. “This pharmaceutical company was desirous to get people into treatment sooner.”

The Lieberman study involved 35 patients diagnosed with clinical depression from across New York and New Jersey. Half of the group was asked to participate in the virtual sessions; the other half participated in more traditional face-to-face sessions. Virtual group members each created their own 3D computer-generated avatar. They could dress the avatar any way they chose. Some opted for caps, others chose loose clothing. Some patients chose avatars that were thinner than they were in real life. “In the virtual environment, the participants were all pretty much the same height and size, but they didn’t have that physical imposition that you might encounter in the face-to-face environment,” said Gabbert. “In such an environment you are much more likely to be revealing and willing to engage each other.”

Since presenting the findings, Gabbert said the firm has been approached by other drug makers to expand the virtual focus group concept in the hopes of better honing treatment protocols and understanding more about patient-drug interaction. “We talk a lot about the treatment algorithm,” he added. “Pharmaceutical companies want to know not only why do patients switch medications, but their reactions, the advantages, and disadvantages to certain treatments. And the virtual world experience can help with that.”

Warner writes about innovation for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @bernhardwarner.

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