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Avatar Therapists Maybe Online

A Potential Bridge To Reluctant Patients

Avatar therapists are gaining popularity

By John Salak –

Telemedicine has simply boomed in the last few years for all sorts of reasons, some obvious, some not. Covid restrictions certainly led to more people relying on online medical services than in the past and individual medical practitioners, as well as organizations, were quick to make more online services available because of growing demand and the realization telemedicine is often a more efficient way to treat a growing number of patients. Obviously, that last point benefits their bottom line.

Besides these factors, certain medical practice areas witnessed an overall increase in patient demand, especially those supporting mental health as the pandemic and other factors took a toll on many psyches. The American Psychological Association, in fact, reported a 30 percent overall surge in patient demand as 2021 took hold, led by even sharper increases in patients with anxiety disorders and depression.

Regardless of overall demand and the state of the pandemic, teletherapy may not only be here to stay, but it’s also likely to grow significantly in the coming year. People not only find it more convenient and flexible, The Good Men Project reports it is drawing new devotees because it can be less expensive than seeing a mental health professional in person. “Instead of your typical hourly rate for in-person sessions, online counseling and therapy are usually based on an affordable subscription that gives people more bang for their buck,” the site explained.

Now there may be yet another boost to the practice as online therapy literally takes on a new face. Australia’s Edith Cowen University unveiled a recent study that found 30 percent of people prefer to talk about negative experiences with a virtual reality avatar than a flesh-and-blood therapist. Since avatars are a digital representation of people or in this case therapists, these findings scream more telemedicine/virtual reality therapy is on the way.

The Australian researchers came to their conclusions after comparing social interactions between people engaged with an avatar to face-to-face conversations. The team used full face and body motion capture technology to create a ‘realistic motion avatar’ that closely mimicked one of their real-life counterparts. Participants then rated their experience on enjoyment, perceived understanding, comfort, awkwardness and how they felt disclosing personal information.

“Overall people rated VR social interaction as similar to face-to-face interaction, with the exception of closeness, where people tended to feel a little closer with each other when face-to-face,” reported Dr. Shane Rogers, a communication and psychology researcher at the university. Yet when it came to discussing personal problems, the participants preferred avatars.

Given the relative comfort people had in discussing awkward or negative elements of their lives in a virtual reality setting, Rogers speculated that expansion VR therapy platforms could open up therapy support to new people who never felt comfortable dealing with an actual person. “It might also enable therapists to conduct therapy more effectively at a distance, as a person can be in the therapist room (in virtual reality) while seated in their own home,” he added, giving yet another boost to telemedicine therapy.

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