I am just getting underway with a very exciting new project that will test some interesting questions about virtual worlds and healthcare. This two-year NIH-funded research program, awarded to Boston University Medical School, is designed to test the differences in impact between real world and virtual world-delivered diabetes healthcare intervention.
Starting in January, the program will recruit Boston-area subjects. The study population will be urban African American women with Type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) who are having trouble controlling their disease.
The program targets this population because diabetes is more common among African American Boston residents at every income level. African Americans comprise about one-third of all Boston adults with diabetes but they make up 45.0% of adult diabetic hospitalizations. Diabetes is twice as likely to contribute to the death of African Americans vs. Caucasians in Boston.
We will use the Center for Disease Control’s diabetes education curriculum, The Power to Prevent, over an eight-month period. Half of the subjects will engage in the program during real world, face-to-face meetings at Boston Medical Center; half will engage in a specially adapted version of the program, delivered in the virtual world of Second Life. My role in this project is to help coordinate the virtual world elements and I’m very excited about all that I’ll learn in the process.
Our research question is: Will subjects in the virtual world program demonstrate greater impact at study-end on health behaviors than subjects in the real world, as measured by patient activity levels: calories consumed; adherence to prescribed medication regime; and decrease trends in overall disease indicators (hemoglobin a1c values, body mass, LDL, and blood pressure)?
In addition to that question, we hope that our study will address the following knowledge gaps:
– Determine the feasibility of delivering healthcare interventions in the virtual world
– How to translate research evidence on health behavior change into programming delivered with a virtual world environment
– Impact of VW health programming on patient attitudes, quality of life and compliance
– Which activities and methods designed to promote heavier change are the most effective
– Better understand patterns of social interaction and support – both formal and informal
– Identify barriers to access and participation and how to ameliorate them
– Determine unique social and cultural attributes of urban underserved minority patients relevant to success with the use of VW technology
– Better understand the relationship between a patient’s body image/sense of self and the way they operate within the VW
– What VW activities translate into increased activities in the real world