The Personalised Care Institute (PCI) has launched ‘lifelike’ virtual reality training to help pharmacists and other healthcare professionals to test and develop their shared decision making skills.

The new training, commissioned by NHS England, simulates patient consultations and helps clinicians learn how to understand the patient’s history, explore their preferences around treatment options and reach a shared decision on how to progress.

Users can interact with the on-screen animated patient character using multiple choice questions, which the PCI says provides a ‘risk-free environment’ to practice patient interactions, ‘without the pressure of observation’.

The simulation is believed to be the first in the world to use virtual reality to explore agenda-setting, teach-back, exploring patient preferences around treatment options and reaching a shared decision between patients and clinicians.

The first two scenarios were launched last week: an in-person consultation based on an osteoarthritis discussion and a remote consultation by telephone with a father concerning his son’s sore throat.

In the coming months, two further scenarios are set to be launched: a referral for suspected bowel cancer and a discussion around the ongoing use of antidepressants.

Research has found that patients who are involved in shared decision making adhere better to treatment, report better relationships with clinicians, are more satisfied with the experience and outcome of their treatment and have fewer regrets about decisions to do with their health and care.

Four in 10 patients want to be more involved in decisions around their health and care, while nine in 10 clinicians think shared decision making should be practiced routinely, according to a 2022 report by The Patient Association.

But nearly half (46%) of the healthcare professionals surveyed said there may be gaps in their knowledge around shared decision making, and even more (70%) said they would like to learn more about shared decision making.

Dr Emma Hyde, clinical director of the PCI, said that the training could help overcome common barriers to practicing shared decision making, such as lack of experience, confidence and time.

‘This free learning tool has been designed to provide health and care practitioners at every level with a quick and easy way to test and develop their personalised care conversation skills in a risk-free environment, without the pressure that comes with being observed, and through a tool that can be accessed as required, to facilitate repeat practice,’ she said.

She added that it would ‘equip health and care professionals with the shared decision making skills and knowledge needed to deliver the very best health outcomes for patients’, as well as addressing ‘the growing desire amongst the general public for greater involvement in key decisions that inform their healthcare’.

And Sarah Partridge, lead senior clinical PCN pharmacist at Nottingham City GP Alliance and a PCI ambassador, commended the tool to colleagues, and said the initiative ‘allows you to explore the communication skills required for delivering personalised care in a safe way, allowing you to try different options and see what works well’.

Pharmacists can access the Virtual Patients training through the PCI website after creating a free account.