Digital Visits Relieve Real-World Symptoms

Practice visits with health care avatars could help young people overcome depression symptoms, according to new research from Case Western Reserve’s Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing.

Melissa D. Pinto, PhD, RN

Many young adults with depression just don’t know how to ask for help, according to nursing researcher Melissa D. Pinto, PhD, RN.

But her study shows that interacting with on-screen avatars—computerized models of health care providers—helps them overcome barriers to seeking treatment and reduces their depressive symptoms.

Pinto, an instructor at the nursing school, used an avatar-based program to step 18- to 25-year-old study participants through a visit to a primary care provider’s office. As they interacted with on-screen avatars, “they didn’t just learn strategies and communication skills, they were rehearsing for a real visit, too,” Pinto explains.

Over the three-month study, young adults who worked with the avatars reported a significant reduction in depressive symptoms, while the group that only received screen-based information saw no significant change.

Pinto also is part of the KL2 Training Program, an initiative of the Clinical and Translational Science Collaborative at the School of Medicine, funded through a $64 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in 2007 and renewed last year with a $64.6 million award. The study also received funding through a Midwest Nursing Research Society/American Nurses Foundation Grant.