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secondlife

Virtual Technology Provides New Place for Diabetes Education

Written by Joni Kirk

As young adults with diabetes transition out from pediatric care and into independent life on their own, they may fall off medical radar screens – and the result can be deadly.

Due to public scrutiny and misunderstanding, many diabetics feel discomfort due to the physical characteristics and health issues that accompany diabetes. Being overweight, testing blood sugar levels frequently and taking insulin shots in public can add to their discomfort.

According to the National Institutes of Health, many diabetics aged 18-28 years old with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes forego seeking treatment, health management counseling and social support networks in lieu of drawing attention to their condition. They'd rather be anonymous.

That's where Brian Cleveley, senior lecturer and program coordinator of the College of Art and Architecture's Virtual Technology and Design program, hopes to create change.

"We want to create a place where this group of people will feel more comfortable, accepted and engaged," says Cleveley.

Thanks to a nearly $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Cleveley will partner with SeAnne Safaii-Fabiano, assistant professor of food and nutrition in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and the Humphrey's Diabetes Center in Boise to develop a virtual diabetes center for young adults to learn about diabetes management.

Cleveley and a virtual design team will develop an island in Second Life, a virtual world that will provide a more accessible, yet anonymous and emotionally safe, educational place for young adult diabetics to network, meet with medical professionals and health educators, and participate in educational forums. The goal is to help and encourage this age group to use the diabetes self-management counseling and education provided by the Humphrey's Diabetes Center.

"Avatars are really trendy right now so we're feeling lucky to have this hit at the right time even though we started working on this grant more than a year ago," says Safaii-Fabiano.

Adapting diabetes management counseling to the virtual world will take some doing, Cleveley says. "We will be assisting people in learning to live and play in the virtual world."

But once that's done, the researchers hope for a successful program.

They have reason to be hopeful. According to "The Evidence-Base for Using Simulation in Medical Education," as published in the proceedings of the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine, those trained with virtual simulations perform as successfully, if not more so, as those with standard training. And research published earlier this year in the Journal of Medical Internet Research revealed that education in Second Life was superior to other methods of online educational content delivery.

As a virtual designer, the challenge for Cleveley and his team is to make the Second Life environment so believable that it is not distracting to participants. "If people aren't looking around thinking how fake the chair looks, the environment will disappear and participants will be able to focus on the task at hand," says Cleveley.

He notes that the virtual environment is what will foster participation, interaction and learning; it's not just a meeting room with a bunch of chairs.

"We will help design avatars for the medical professionals that are authentic, are representative of these people in real life, and appeal to the participants," Cleveley says. "We want to create a space and physical representations that make people comfortable."

"We also will work with the participants to meet their expectations. Some may want to appear silly and off the wall," he says. "They will expect gestures and functionality that allow them to project emotion and respond to the educational content."

Challenges aside, the project's promise is to find ways to get critical health care information to young adults by delivering it virtually.