THAT people undergoing medical procedures should give their informed consent might seem simple and uncontentious. But what if a patient has a mental impairment and his doctor does not have time to ensure he understands the proposed treatment? Those who try to look after the interests of such people say that, in practice, hard-pressed hospital staff often ask leading questions and the “consent” obtained is thus far from informed.
A team of researchers led by Suzanne Conboy-Hill, a psychologist at the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, England, reckon virtual environments could provide the solution. They are designing a virtual model of the hospital and, in October, it will receive its first “patients”—a group of 20 volunteers with learning disabilities who will visit it in order to find out what’s what and, in particular, to be talked through the sort of treatment they might be offered if they really were patients.
The hospital is being built in Second Life, an online world in which people participate in the form of virtual representatives known as avatars. In the case of those in the study, their digital alter egos will begin their journeys at a simulation of the Grace Eyre Foundation centre for adults with learning disabilities in Brighton, which they attend in real life. Local landmarks such as the town’s famous seaside pier will be used to help familiarise them with their surroundings before they arrive at a virtual version of the Royal Sussex.