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Investigation of the potential for patient focus group meetings to be held in a virtual world

Michael J. Taylor

Figure 1: Two avatars meeting in the virtual world Second Life, in a virtual space owned by Imperial College London


Our study recently published in the British Journal of Educational Technology(1) explored patient attitudes towards the possibility of attending a patient focus group online, using a virtual world. The term ‘virtual world’ refers to a computer-generated environment accessed by multiple users who interact using self-representations known as ‘avatars’(2). Three-dimensional online virtual worlds have been utilised in many different health-related contexts including medical education(3) and simulation for training professionals(4). There is also potential for health service users to use virtual worlds to take part in patient and public engagement to communicate their views relating to healthcare and health research, and be involved in the improvement of these services(5).

“Such meetings have benefits for patients, staff and healthcare researchers”

We aimed to explore the potential for virtual worlds to be used as a platform for patient focus group meetings. Such meetings have benefits for patients, staff and healthcare researchers(6): Patients can benefit by meeting others with similar diagnoses and having a platform to provide feedback about their experience of receiving care. These meetings are also beneficial to researchers and clinicians because they provide a method of acquiring information that can usefully inform healthcare quality improvement(6). However, patients who have impaired speech or whose condition makes traveling difficult are likely to find attending and taking part in such meetings difficult.

Because virtual worlds can support written as well as verbal communication(5) and are accessible from anywhere with a computer and internet connection(2), they can be used to provide a platform for patient focus groups that would enable patients to take part in such meetings who would not have done so otherwise. Previous research has revealed that the extent of receptiveness of patients towards the idea of using information technologies for healthcare-related purposes can be highly variable(6). We sought to explore attitudes of a patient group towards the possibility of using virtual worlds for meetings so that this information could inform future potential development of a virtual world facility for this purpose.

Participants, who were recruited from a hospital Chest clinic, completed a questionnaire which contained items about access to computer technologies and attitudes towards the idea of using a virtual world to attend a meeting with other patients. The questionnaire was completed by 94 patients with a chronic respiratory condition. A subset of the sample (14.5%) expressed willingness to attend a virtual world focus group. A considerable portion of the sample, 40%, did not have computer or internet access at home; younger participants were more likely to have access to these facilities and so would be more likely to be able to access a virtual world. Participants suggested that advantages of a virtual world health-related facility included the potential for it to support patients to meet other similar people, and to learn more about the condition with which they had been diagnosed. As the results indicated that younger patients would be more likely to use virtual worlds for health-related purposes, it may be beneficial for create a virtual facility to that would appeal to this demographic. In the context of respiratory healthcare, an appropriate patient group may be those diagnosed with asthma. Future work could involve creation and testing of a patient meeting space and asthma education resource based in an online virtual world. Such a facility could enable users to meet others with similar diagnoses, and to learn more about their condition and its treatment.



  1. Taylor, M. J., Taylor, D., Vlaev, I., & Elkin, S. (2017). Virtual worlds to support patient group communication? A questionnaire study investigating potential for virtual world focus group use by respiratory patients. British Journal of Educational Technology, 48(2), 451-461.
  2. Bainbridge, W. S. (2007). The scientific research potential of virtual worlds. science, 317(5837), 472-476.
  3. Patel, V., Aggarwal, R., Osinibi, E., Taylor, D., Arora, S., & Darzi, A. (2012). Operating room introduction for the novice. The American Journal of Surgery, 203(2), 266-275.
  4. Kulendran, M., Taylor, M., Taylor, D., & Darzi, A. (2014). 3D Simulation of a Hospital Environment and Ward Round to Augment a Summer School Program for Pre-Medical Students. Studies in health technology and informatics, 196, 209.
  5. Taylor, M. J., Kaur, M., Sharma, U., Taylor, D., Reed, J. E., & Darzi, A. (2013). Using virtual worlds for patient and public engagement. International journal of technology, knowledge and society, 9(2), 31.
  6. Smith, J. A., Scammon, D. L., & Beck, S. L. (1995). Using patient focus groups for new patient services. The Joint Commission journal on quality improvement, 21(1), 22-31.