Using Virtual Reality to Help Doctors Spot Child Abuse

13 July 2018

Realizing its potential in training doctors in real-life scenarios, researchers from the University of Birmingham and University College of London have been working to determine if general practitioners (GP) could use virtual reality (VR) to also assist them in detecting less-than-obvious signs of child abuse.

Led by Professor Sylvie Delacroix, Professor in Law and Ethics at the University of Birmingham, the team explored methods for training GPs to develop observation skills that aren’t necessarily easy to teach. Among those skills not easily taught, according to the research, is the ability to detect whether a child is being abused in his or her home.

By immersing the GPs in a virtual environment simulating scenarios such as interacting with a patient who treats his son so aggressively that the young boy flinches, the technology might help participants pick up on both subtle and not-so-subtle signs of the abuse in real-life.

To create the VR program, the team consulted a pediatrician with experience in child-safeguarding to inform the program. The VR was then tested on almost 65 GPs, all with varied levels of experience. At the end of each virtual session, the GPs were evaluated based on the quality of their notes concerning what they witnessed and the steps taken to safeguard the virtual child.

Professor Delacroix said: "It is very difficult to study how GPs spot signs of abuse, given the number of factors that may interfere with this in a real-life, professional setting. It is encouraging that the system developed by this project showed that the GPs' level of experience did not impact upon their ability to pick up on a parent's level of aggressive behavior towards their child."

Professor Delacroix added: "Our results also showed that GPs who are less stressed, less neurotic, more agreeable and extroverted tend to be better at raising potential child abuse issues in their notes. These results not only indicate the considerable potential of virtual reality as a training tool — they also highlight fruitful avenues for further research and potential strategies to support GPs in their dealing with highly sensitive, emotionally charged situations."

The VR lead of the work, Dr. Sylvia Xueni Pan of Goldsmiths, added: "An advantage of our approach is that, unlike with actors, we have absolute control over our virtual characters. This means we can subtly alter the behavior and responses of these virtual patients. Our results show that medical doctors responded to this, as those given less obvious behavioral cues were not as effective at recording concerns as those given more obvious cues."

The medical lead of the work, Dr. Caroline Fertleman from UCL said: "For ethical reasons it would be impossible to recreate this kind of sensitive scenario using child actors. What we have shown, for the first time, is that we can create virtual reality characters of abused children and their parents that doctors believe in and interact with in a realistic way enabling them to learn how to spot the subtle warning signs of abuse."

The research is published in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI.

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