Education in Virtual Worlds, Second Life

Medical Professionals Find Health Sites Flourishing in Second Life

The University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health recently completed a study of health-related activites in Second Life, and the findings have been published at the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

The authors, Leslie Beard, Kumanan Wilson, Dante Morra, and Jennifer Keelan, conclude that health sites in Second Life are heavily weighted towards education and training, with a number of smaller categories also existing. The study also notes that their numbers are expanding, having found 68 relevant sites, and that activites in Second Life “translate to the real world… suggesting that users are engaged in a range of health-related activities in Second Life which are potentially impacting real-life behaviors.”

They recognized five types of health-related activities: education & awareness, support, training, marketing & promotion of health services, and research. What is notable about these categories is that of the 68 sites studied, only six are focused on marketing. The bulk of Second Life health-related activities fell under the ‘education & awareness’ categories, proof that Second Life’s capabilities are a perfect match for this category. To quote the study:

There are many features of Second Life that make it an ideal tool to (disseminate health information). The interactivity, online accessibility, dynamic visual displays, and communication capabilities are key components in many of the health sites we surveyed.

The study goes on to outline the “compelling and particularily innovative” sites under each of the five types, which are outlined in brief below:

Education & Awareness: Healthinfo Island; University of Plymouth Sexual Health Sim; CDC Island; Women’s Health Center at the Ann Myers Medical Center; and Virtual Hallucinations.

Support: Sexual Health Sim and Transgender Resource Center — Peer Support & Social Activism.

Training: Imperial College London (Virtual Hospital); Play2Train; and Medical Examiner’s Office — Forensic Path.

Marketing: Second Health (UK); Palomar West Hospital; and American Cancer Society (ACS).

Research: none notable enough to merit mention.

It is worth quoting the conclusion of the report here in full:

Second Life offers various interactive and innovative ways of communicating health information to a growing population of users. We developed five categories to describe the range of health-related activities online. The most common category was those sites whose primary purpose was to disseminate health information, followed by sites for peer-support, training of health care professionals, sites marketing and promoting health institutions and products, and, finally, sites dedicated to both virtual and real-world health research. The ability for individual users, health care institutions, and companies to create their own content presents opportunities for greater access to information and access to real-world health resources.

The design attributes of successful Second Life health sites suggest that both anonymity and interactivity are paramount. Second Life offers users the ability to interact with and speak to real people in real time while preserving their anonymity. They can consult with experts and other individuals with shared experiences, either privately or publicly in a group setting. Even when engaged in public discourse, there is still an element of privacy that does not exist in real-world interactions. This makes Second Life a potentially powerful tool for enabling discourse about personal and private issues, particularly those concerning health.

The number of health sites within Second Life indicates a need for this type of interaction in health care. Health care and communications professionals can learn why people are attracted to these virtual settings to engage in health discourse and potentially apply these lessons to real-world health communication strategies. Users are encouraged to expand their understanding of illnesses and to practice health promotion and prevention strategies through their avatar’s experiences. To be able to ask questions and pursue health information and experiences in an interactive 3-D setting, with inter-personal but anonymous contact, is singular to virtual worlds and opens up a range of exciting new possibilities for both patients and health care professionals.

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