Feds Spend $499,880 to Teach Doctors How to Talk to Fat Kids

Computer-based role play to instruct docs in Minnesota

January 16, 2015

A new project from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is using computer-simulated training sessions to teach Minnesota doctors how to talk to fat kids.

The nearly $500,000 study using "virtual role play" to coach doctors is the latest attempt by the federal government to combat obesity.

"Obesity in the United States is at historically high levels, and is an important health problem," the grant for the project states. "Interventions targeting children are a high priority because children bear the greatest lifetime health risk from overweight and obesity."

"Health professionals in primary care settings are influential in the lives of families," it continued. "Even brief advice delivered well can have a meaningful impact, and yet, health care providers indicate that lack of efficacy and skill, impact, patient motivation, and educational materials keep them from routinely addressing obesity prevention and treatment in their practices."

The grant was awarded to SiMmersion, LLC, a communications training company that simulates conversations with virtual actors. In one example video, a law enforcement officer interviews a neighbor of a man who "may be dealing drugs out of his house." "On-screen assistants," smaller computer-animated people, give two thumbs up when the conversation is going well.

SiMmersion will create three role-play scenarios for doctors to practice "sharing concerns about a child's weight with a parent," how to schedule follow up appointments after "the initial discussion regarding weight," and speaking to children directly about "healthy choices."

Doctors will be trained at 100 health care providers in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul area. The project has cost $499,880 so far.

"Educating and motivating parents to change family environments for overweight and obese children will reduce the instances of childhood obesity and the long-term impact it has on health and quality of life," the grant said.

SiMmersion has partnered with numerous government agencies and universities on a wide range of subjects.

The company has received $11,860,936 from the federal government since 2004, including $1,283,000 to provide sexual assault training to the Air Force.

SiMmersion has received $5,797,652 from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the majority of which has gone to NIH studies.

The company received $847,569 from 2006 to 2008 from the NIH to teach doctors how to talk to alcoholics, and $881,694 from 2009 to 2011 for coaching on how to speak to patients about prescription drug abuse.

A current project, where SiMmersion is training "Greek life staff" and college advisers on campuses how to talk to students who drink too much, has cost $727,222 so far.