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Reducing Childhood Obesity by Using Virtual Role-Players to Train Healthcare Providers

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Childhood Obesity is a significant health problem in the United States. The CDC funded SIMmersion to help pediatricians and other healthcare providers, learn how to help families make healthier choices.

“Obesity is a chronic disease affecting an increasing number of children, teens, and adults. Obesity rates among children in the U.S. have doubled since 1980 and have tripled for teens.… The likelihood of childhood obesity persisting into adulthood increases as the child ages. This puts the person at high risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.” (https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/obesity/preventing-obesity ) Other effects include a higher risk for COVID-19, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, gallstones and gallbladder disease. In addition, obesity can result in psychological problems include anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and social issues. (https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/basics/consequences.html)

Clinical Management Strategy

According to NIH, “Pediatricians must focus efforts on preventing childhood overweight, such prevention involves sensitively communicating early body mass index screening results to parents and helping them to adopt key behavioral changes in diet and physical activity.” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2692353/)

A Tool for Change

To address the issue of childhood obesity, the CDC funded SIMmersion (Grant # R44 DP005954) to develop a training system for pediatricians and other healthcare providers. The system was intended to help them learn how to communicate with parents of obese children in order to influence positive behavior changes. In collaboration with Dr. Nancy Sherwood from HealthPartners Institute for Education and Research; Dr. Jayne Fulkerson and Dr. Iris Borowsky from the University of Minnesota; and a panel of practicing pediatricians, pediatric nurses, and social workers, SIMmersion created a virtual role-player, Kelly Robinson, who has a four-year-old obese child.

Each role-play with Kelly will be different, but her behavior will always be realistic. During the role-play, Kelly will display a variety of typical personalities often encountered by healthcare providers during an office visit, including someone who is overwhelmed, fearful, overeager, misinformed, and even unconcerned. Free training on how to have a conversation with a parent about childhood obesity is available at https://www.training.simmersion.com. Additionally, you can practice talking with Kelly for a small licensing fee. Learn more at https://www.simmersion.com/obesityprevention.

Research Findings

In a research study at the University of Minnesota, 44 participants were recruited from an academic health center and randomized to either an intervention group who practiced with Kelly or a group who did not. The outcome of interest was the change in participants’ clinical skills assessed through role-plays with standardize patients (actors). Participants skills were assessed when the study was started and again 10-weeks later. The actors portrayed parents of an overweight child. Evaluations of the participant’s skills were made by trained individuals who did not know whether the participants had practiced with Kelly. There was a highly significant group difference (p-value =0.0001) with participants who used the Kelly training scoring higher than those participants who did not.

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