Patient and public involvement is fundamental in healthcare and many methods attempt to facilitate this engagement.
The present study investigated use of computer-generated environments known as “virtual worlds” (VW) as an engagement method. The VW used in the present research was Second Life, which is 3-dimensional, publically accessible and Internet-based. It is accessed using digital self-representations, or “avatars,” through which users navigate the virtual environment and communicate with one another. Participants were patients with long-term conditions, frequently involved in shaping health research and care. Some had mobility and communication difficulties, potentially making involvement through traditional face-to-face modes of engagement challenging.
There were two stages to this study.
Stage-1: Participants were introduced to VWs and Second Life. This was followed by a face-to-face focus group discussion (FGD) in order to gain their views on use of SL. Stage-2: An FGD attended by eight people (four patients, three researchers, one healthcare professional) was conducted in Second Life. Training and support on using Second Life had been provided for participants. The FGD took place successfully, although some technical and communication difficulties were experienced. Data was collected in the form of transcriptions and questionnaires from the patients about their experience of using the virtual world. Participants recognised the potential of VWs as a platform for patient engagement, especially for those who suffer from chronic conditions that impact severely upon their mobility and communication. Participant feedback indicated that potential barriers include technical problems with VW programs and potential user inexperience of using VWs, which may be counteracted by ensuring provision of continuous training and support. In conclusion, this study established the feasibility of using VWs for patient FGDs and indicates a potential of use of VWs for engagement in future, particularly for peer-led support and to engage people with particular long-term conditions.