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Medical Students' Suicide Risk Assessment Proficiency after Interacting with a Virtual Patient in Crisis

2012 Pilot Research Grant
Amount Awarded: $29,969
Focus Area: Community Intervention Studies

Adriana Foster, M.D.

Adriana Foster, M.D.
Medical College of Georgia, Georgia Health Sciences University

Inside the Research

Bio: Dr. Foster received her medical degree at Carol Davila University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Romania in 1988. She is currently the Psychiatry Core Clerkship Director at the Medical College of Georgia, Georgia Health Sciences University, and a Faculty Advisor for Helping Hands, an American Psychiatric Foundation-funded team.

Research Categories: Medical student education using virtual patients, suicide risk assessment

Abstract: It has been demonstrated that educating physicians to assess for suicidal ideation and behavior, and then to treat accordingly, has reduced suicidal behavior. Dr. Foster’s randomized clinical trial seeks to demonstrate that virtual patients (VP) can be used to teach medical students to assess and treat people with suicidal ideation and behavior more effectively than simply observing a physician interviewing a patient. VPs are computerized, web-based patients with whom medical students can interact by asking questions and eliciting answers. In this study, the experimental group examines a VP named Denise who has bipolar disorder and soon makes a suicide attempt. The medical student uses virtual technology to interview the patient, and subsequently to interview her husband after she makes a suicide attempt. Throughout the process, the student receives feedback and a transcript is available for later review. The control group watches a film of a professional interviewing a standard patient about suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and family history of suicidal behavior. Finally, students from both groups complete an online survey to provide information about their demographics and experience with mental illness. Later, the medical students interview a live patient and their skill is assessed. The two groups are compared, and the hypothesis is that those who had interactive experience with the VP will have better skills with real patients than those who watched an interview.

Impact: If found to be effective, the VP will be made available to all medical students free of charge. The ultimate goal is to help medical students and physicians to develop proficient skills and associated attitudes to assess suicide risk.

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