Research: Second Life Used to Teach Relaxation Techniques

A small study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers found that online virtual communities can be a great way to train patients in the art of meditation and other mind and body-related techniques. Researchers used the virtual world of Second Life to conduct the research.

"Our finding that a medical intervention – in this case teaching a mind/body approach that includes the relaxation response – can be delivered via a virtual environment is important because these environments are richer and more rewarding than simply using interactive web sites," says Daniel Hoch, MD, PhD, of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.

Virtual worlds proved to be a better way to teach patients relaxation techniques because it eliminated the limitations of face-to-face meetings, particularly with patients with mobility problems and other disabilities. It also worked well with individuals who were found to be uncomfortable in real-world group settings.

Several patient support groups – including groups that support patients with neurologic disorders, have already established Second Life communities to share information and experiences. To adapt the traditional face-to-face teaching methods to a virtual environment, Hoch teamed up with Benson-Henry clinicians and "experts" familiar with designing things in Second Life.

The one caveat is that the study was only able to use patients who were healthy and had some sort of experience navigating a virtual world.

Participants were put in groups of up to eight individuals and participated in the study twice a week via virtual meetings led by a Benson-Henry clinician. They taught different methods of relaxation, guided participants through practice sessions, answered questions participants had and discussed the experiences. Group members were asked to do the exercises they learned for at least 20 minutes each day in front of the computer with their avatar in the Second Life virtual teaching area or a quiet setting. They also received audio and video files and other supporting information. Before and after the eight weeks of online sessions, participants completed standard questionnaires assessing stress levels and other psychological symptoms.

The full study was completed by 24 participants divided into three groups, all receiving the same training program.

At the end of the study researchers found that participants showed reductions in depression- and anxiety-related symptoms. They also noted that they were "very satisfied" with the virtual environment, with several participants saying that they would not have taken part without the online option.

"Several participants have let us know, several months later, that they continue to use techniques they learned in these sessions to reduce stress in their everyday lives," Hoch says. "The Second Life technology is changing rapidly and its creators have scaled back their interest in educational and clinical activities, so we're now hoping to explore the ability to have secure patient interactions in web-browser-based environments. One of the applications that I feel holds a great deal of promise is using this approach to help patients with post-traumatic stress, so I'm hopeful we'll have the opportunity to try that in the near future."

"Social networks and online communities represent an important element of support, information and motivation for many patients," adds Joseph Kvedar, MD, director of the Center for Connected Health, Partners HealthCare, and a co-author of the PLoS One report. "Connected health strategies are creating new opportunities to deliver quality care, for patients and providers to communicate effectively and help motivate and educate patients to stay on track with their treatment plan."

Source: Medical News Today.

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