Routine physical examinations of a more intimate nature may become a little less awkward and a little more precise according to a team of engineering students from the University of Florida. The team's design of a ‘mixed reality’ human patient could be the answer in managing this delicate aspect of bedside manner. The mixed reality human is named Amanda Jones and she exists, in both virtual and physical form, as a life-sized cyberspace image on a flat screen, and as a mannequin with a prosthetic breast. Her purpose is noble: to help train medical students to conduct intimate breast exam procedures.

The simulated breast exam allows students to demonstrate the technical aspects of the procedure. Sensors within the prosthetic breast indicate pressure information, illustrated in colors on the virtual breast, which determines whether the correct palpitating technique is used. Abnormalities can also be programmed into the system.

Concurrent with the medical training gained in this simulation — and arguably as important — is the communication between doctor and virtual patient. The consult involves an unscripted and typical dialogue delivered through a computer speech and voice recognition system. In this way students can learn to balance their clinical skills with subjectivity while they navigate through what is naturally a sensitive women’s health issue.

This virtual patient is not intended to replace real volunteers. University of Florida assistant professor of computer and information sciences and engineering, Benjamin Lok, who heads the research, believes that as opportunities to examine patients in real settings are limited, "students have to somehow build their database of experience."

Several virtual patient projects are receiving a total of approximately USD$2.8 million in funding, and the research agenda next intends to explore men’s health issues. A virtual male patient, who has not as yet been named, will selflessly subject himself to prostate exams.

We mere mortals could have him and Amanda Jones to thank for improving the quality of care in our health system.

The video at the university website shows how the students conduct the exam and interact with the 'patient'.