Avatars Could Help Doctors Treat Depression In Young Adults (And Keep Healthcare Costs Down, Too)

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Us young adults, we just feel more comfortable in the hip cool online world. Right? Well, that’s what researchers at Case Western University found: When young adults interacted with online avatars of healthcare providers, their depression symptoms were significantly reduced.

Published in the journal Applied Nursing Research, the article titled ”Avatar-based depression self-management technology: promising approach to improve depression symptoms among young adults” posits that people in the 18-to-25 age group can seriously benefit from utilizing online avatars (3D virtual images of healthcare providers).

Researchers used an interactive online avatar program called eSMART-MH, which was was designed in Buchner’s Virtual Gaming Lab and tailored for young adults with depressive symptoms. Basically, eSMART-MH walks young adults through healthcare appointments with an avatar healthcare provider, as if the online experience is an office appointment. Young adults can practice talking about their feelings of depression, ask  questions and learn self-management skills to help manage depressive symptoms.

The sample included 28 participants divided into two groups: one used the eSMART-MH, and one used a electronic screen-based health system. According to Science Daily:

In this small pilot study, young adults who received eSMART-MH had a significant reduction in depressive symptoms over the three-month study, and depressive symptoms dropped below level for clinical significance. The young adults who received electronic screen-based information only had no significant change in depressive symptoms during the study.

Melissa Pinto, the lead study researcher said that the data was promising and that she looks forward to doing more research on this topic.

I don’t know that I’d feel more comfortable interacting with an avatar to prepare for a real meeting with a mental healthcare provider, but I might feel comfortable using an online avatar just to get past initial questions, maybe as a screening tool or something like that.

If this kind of practice were to become widespread, it does sound like it would be a great tool to reach younger adults who might be having depressive symptoms. Since young people are less likely to have health insurance, this kind of a program could be a valuable tool for screening, and could save individuals and care providers quite a bit of money, depending on how it was used and implemented.

What do you think? Would you feel comfortable telling an avatar about your symptoms of depression?

Photo: Shutterstock

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