Medical students, meet Patrick.

The latest in training technology, Patrick is a simulated patient that talks to medical students while offering real-time feedback about the virtual prostate exam he’s receiving. While a perplexing site to behold — users actually check the mock prostate of a dummy’s rear end — doctors have praised the technology for allowing students to familiarize themselves with intimate exams before they ever encounter a live patient.

Patrick serves a dual purpose: personal and professional. Personally, he comes equipped with software that enables him to interact emotionally with the student and voice any concerns he has about the procedure. Dr. Benjamin Lok, one of the program’s designers, says the interpersonal relationship Patrick helps foster is invaluable from a practicing perspective. “This virtual human patient can talk to the learner, expresses fears and concerns about the prostate exam, and presents a realistic patient encounter,” Lok told Geekosystem.

The other purpose he serves is functional. Patrick is endowed with force sensors, which can alert the student when he or she is being too aggressive, and can report how thorough the student was in his or her examination.

“Consider this,” Lok said, “how would a medical student know if they are doing a good prostate exam? Currently it is impossible for the educator to gauge performance. This simulation provides performance, feedback, and an opportunity to learn and lower anxiety.”

Bedside manner — the geniality with which doctors approach their relationship with patients — has repeatedly been found to significantly impact a person’s perception of a medical procedure. Being able to distill technical jargon into easily digestible language for patients is necessary for doctors, but it’s not sufficient. They must also be able to communicate with patients on an emotional level, to empathize with them and provide comforting words, even if the prognosis is grim.

Prostate and breast exams rank among the most intimate, high-stake procedures doctors can administer. Unfortunately, they’re also two of the most crudely screened procedures, turning medicine into something of a coaching job as well. Worse, students hoping to break into these fields often do so without any communicative or technical training, Lok said. “Students receive minimal practice and interaction in intimate exams due to the high cost for training and high anxiety nature of the exams.”

“So our research group has spent the past 4 years exploring whether we can improve medical students preparation and performance in intimate exams using simulations,” he continued. Together with University of Wisconsin researcher, Dr. Carla Pugh, Lok and his research group developed what’s called a “mixed reality” simulator. Pugh’s development of the physical mannequin, combined with the computer program Lok’s group designed, makes for a realistic patient experience that students can interact with in real-time.

Patrick is in use at Drexel University and at the University of Florida, and the feedback he provides is currently setting the foundation for broader research into the use of virtual humans to prepare people for stressful interpersonal experiences.