Software helps psychiatry students treat mental illness

Interactive software allows students to watch scenarios

Interactive software being developed by Auckland University will help psychiatry students better understand and treat the mentally ill, by allowing them to replay various scenarios so as to study them more closely.

The software, currently being used by the university’s medical students, features five different scenarios in which patients with varying mental problems are interviewed. For example, one patient, played by an actor, is convinced he has had a “nanobot” implanted in his ear and desperately wants it removed.

After watching the scenarios the students are asked questions about the patients and then write down a diagnosis and management plan for the various patients.

They need to consider treatment and safety issues, as well as work and income for the patient, says the software’s creator, Dr Tony Fernando, who is a senior lecturer at Auckland University’s School of Medicine. Students can then compare their notes with a model answer. The software also gives students access to academic discussions about each particular case.

Fernando, a psychiatrist and sleep specialist, got the idea for an interactive program in 2002. He used to have actors come to lectures, so as to give students a chance to see and interact with patients.

“In psychiatry, you learn from seeing people,” he says. “Books can only describe so much about the nature of a certain condition. Students need to see as many patients as possible, under supervision. That is how you learn.”

But Fernando thought it would be even better if students could take the scenarios home, and so have the opportunity to go over them many times — any time, anywhere.

He secured a grant to develop the software, which was finished in 2005. Fernando wrote the script for the software and then worked with a programmer and a designer from the university to develop it. The patient’s role is played by actors but real medical students are doing the interviews, he says.

The university has been using the software as a standard learning tool for students since 2005. It has also been sold to 15 medical schools in the US.

Now Fernando has won a second grant, to develop a new version of the software. This will have 12 scenarios and even more interactive features, he says. He is currently in the process of filming the scenes.

Feedback from students so far has been incredible, he says.

“It has been unanimously positive. The only negative comments have been ‘how come we didn’t have this earlier’ and ‘give us more scenarios, please’,” says Fernando.

A review of the tool showed that 96% of students found the software easy to navigate, and 91% found the graphic interface pleasing, he says. “And perhaps the most important thing — 98.5% would recommend it to other students,” he says.

Fernando is also running an online project that aims to enhance people’s mental resiliency. The website, which will go live in the next couple of months, will help people learn how to “bounce back”, because a lot of people can’t. Instead they break under pressure, says Fernando.

The website, which will include podcasts and discussion forums, will feature three main areas: finding meaning in life; having healthy relationships; and developing skills to make you more resilient, says Fernando.

This latter category will include specific techniques on how to deal with, for example, distressing emotions, alcohol and drugs, he says. Users will be able to learn basic meditation techniques, as well as how to increase their level of compassion towards others and how to develop an attitude of gratitude, he says.

Many of the principles and techniques come from the East, says Fernando.

Initially, the website, called CALM (Computer Assisted Learning of the Mind), will be available to students only. The School of Medicine will conduct a study to investigate the outcomes of the site and it will then be launched to the public.

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Tags medical studentsuniversity of aucklandPsychiatry

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