This virtual woman is very sick. Talking to her could make doctors more empathetic.

Giving a patient bad news can be uncomfortable, but med student Katie Goldrath had no choice.

Nobody likes to deliver bad news, but this was important. The patient, a young woman named Robin, had come in because she kept getting nosebleeds — and Goldrath had just learned the reason behind it was leukemia.

Goldrath knew Robin needed to get into treatment as soon as possible. She also knew if their conversation went poorly, Robin might get angry or even storm out, delaying her treatment ... and possibly endangering her life.


Luckily, if things spiraled out of control, Goldrath could always hit the redo button. That's because Robin wasn't a real person. Robin was part of a computer program called MPathic-VR, designed to help young doctors learn to communicate with their patients.

Robin. Image courtesy of Dr. Fred Kron/Medical Cyberworlds, Inc.

Goldrath's experience talking to Robin was part of a study to test out the program's potential.

A doctor’s words can change a person's life, but knowing what to say, and how to say it, isn't easy. It's a serious skill that has to be learned and mastered. Better communication can make patients feel better, both emotionally and physically. Poor communication, on the other hand, can lead to malpractice suits, patients not listening to their doctors, and sicker people.

Medical students like Goldrath usually go through special training to learn these skills. Common methods include multimedia trainings or holding mock conversations with students or actors standing in for the patient. But these can have downsides. The mock conversations can be expensive and hit or miss depending on how good the "patient’s" acting skills are. The "patient" might also not be able to give very detailed feedback.

A program like Robin's simulation might solve some of these common communication problems.

Motion capture was used to help produce Robin's range of facial expressions. Image courtesy of Dr. Fred Kron/Medical Cyberworlds, Inc.

Though talking to a computer might seem weird at first, Robin is designed to react as much like a real human as possible. She has her own expressions, mannerisms, and emotions. The software can also recognize what the student is saying and use a camera to track the student's body language. Even small eye movements don't go unnoticed.

"It was actually pretty incredible to see what it could pick up on," Goldrath said of her conversations with Robin. Did Goldrath lean in and look Robin in the eye, a welcoming, compassionate gesture, or did she act aloof and look away? The computer could record her body language and posture and provide feedback for the next time around.

The program also comes with two other scenarios for doctors to practice with: one that focuses on navigating family drama and another that involves talking one-on-one with a nurse who’s upset she’s been left out of previous conversations.

Doctors care about their patients. This tool can help them ensure their patients know that.

In the end, the study found that, compared to standard multimedia training, MPathic-VR students improved more and felt more positive about the experience. Their results were released in the April issue of Patient Education and Counseling.

While MPathic-VR isn't in any schools yet, Dr. Fred Kron, founder of the company who made the program, says they're starting to look at rolling out the software and want to continue Robin's story.

Everyone wants to be able to express empathy, but it can be hard, especially when delivering upsetting information in a high-stress and fast-paced environment. There's no perfect recipe for how to give bad news, but these kinds of tools might help people who find themselves doing so frequently to find their footing or even just hone that skill with compassion.

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Courtesy of Macy's

In many ways, 18-year-old Idaho native, Hank Cazier, is like any other teenager you've met. He loves chocolate, pop music, and playing games with his family. He has lofty dreams of modeling for a major clothing company one day. But one thing that sets him apart may also jeopardize his future is his recent battle against a brain tumor.

Cazier was diagnosed in 2015. When he had surgery to remove the tumor, he received trauma to his brain and lost some of his motor functionality. He's been in physical, occupational, and speech therapy ever since. The experience impacted Cazier's confidence and self-esteem, so he's been looking for a way to build himself back up again.

"I wanted to do something that helped me look forward to the future," he says.

Enter Make-A-Wish, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for children battling critical illnesses, providing them a chance to make the impossible possible. The organization partnered with Macy's to raise awareness and help make those wishes a reality. The hope is that the "wish effect" will improve their quality of life and empower them with the strength they need to overcome these illnesses and look towards the future. That was a particularly big deal for Cazier, who had been feeling like so many of his wishes weren't going to be possible because of his critical illness.

"In the beginning, it was hard to accept that it would be improbable for me to accomplish my previous goals because my illness took away so many of my physical abilities," says Cazier. His wish of becoming a model also seemed out of reach.

But Macy's and Make-A-Wish didn't see it like that. Once they learned about Cazier's wish, they knew he had to make it come true by inviting him to be part of the magical Macy's holiday shoot in New York.

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Make-A-Wish can't fulfill children's wishes without the generosity of donors and partners like Macy's. In fact, since 2003, Macy's has given more than $122 million to Make-A-Wish and impacted the lives of more than 2.9 million people.

Cazier's wish experience was beyond what he could've imagined, and it filled him with so much joy and confidence. "It is like waking up and discovering that you have super powers. It feels amazing!" he exclaims.

One of the best parts about the day for him was the kindness everyone who helped make it happen showed him.

"The employees of Macy's and Make-A-Wish made me feel welcome, warm, and cared for," he says. "I am truly grateful that even though they were busy doing their jobs, they were able to show kindness and compassion towards me in all of the little details."

He also got to spend part of the shoot outdoors, which, as someone who loves climbing, hiking, and scuba-diving but has trouble doing those activities now, was very welcome.

Courtesy of Macy's

Overall, Cazier feels he grew a lot during his modeling wish and is now emboldened to work towards a better quality of life. "I want to acquire skills that help me continue to improve in these circumstances," he says.

You can change the lives of more kids like Cazier just by writing a letter to Santa and dropping it in the big red letterbox at Macy's (you can also write and submit one online). For every letter received before Dec. 24, 2019, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. By writing a letter to Santa, you can help a child replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy, and anxiety with hope.

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