Dr. Melissa Pinto

In November, Dr. Melissa Pinto, Associate Professor at UCI Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing, was invited to present her research on technology-based mental health care at the Pentagon to the Air Force.

Dr. Pinto’s work investigates the use of avatars as supplemental therapeutic virtual health care providers as a way to improve mental health. The Air Force was interested in learning how the nurse-designed avatar intervention might be able to help reduce suicide. “When we met with them, we explained that suicide is the end point of a complex trajectory,” says Dr. Pinto. “There are a variety of factors like depression, deteriorating mental health, and substance abuse that can precede suicide. Many of these factors can be addressed with early intervention.”

Dr. Pinto speak at the Pentagon

Melissa D. Pinto, PhD, RN Associate Professor

Dr. Pinto and her multidisciplinary team have created a realistic, first-person virtual medical office visit on a computer, allowing users to practice talking about depression with avatar virtual healthcare providers. Pinto and her team have found that subjects felt comfortable sharing information with an avatar that they may not normally share with a human. The user may believe there is more privacy and less judgment than when talking with a human. People know they are talking to avatars that are pre-programmed, and therefore perceive little risk of failure and embarrassment. Such a platform creates an environment for the user to feel more comfortable being totally honest and disclosing more,” says Pinto.

“We realized that avatars have the potential to engage with patients in a way that could help them feel better. Using avatars could be a new method for delivering care, especially for those who may not seek it,” recalls Pinto. A 12-week pilot study showed significant reduction in depressive symptoms in subjects who engaged with the virtual mental health experience once a month, compared with a control group.

The Pentagon’s interest in Dr. Pinto’s work highlights the importance of nursing research to national health. “I was thrilled have an opportunity to help improve the mental health of the noble men and women who serve our country,” says Dr. Pinto. “I believe that nurses are well-positioned to innovate in the realm of mental health technology and on a large scale. Nurses work in a variety of settings, including the community; we often have insight into how patients manage their health outside the medical setting and can help design health platforms that are effective and useful at home.”

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