It may sound surprising but the idea of virtual patients is nothing new. Almost 40 years ago, at the beginning of the personal computer era, there were already attempts of constructing case-based computer learning programs that would support medical students. So why was the first conference on virtual patients not organised until 2009? Why did we start this now? Andrzej Kononowicz from Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland explains.
I believe there is a world of difference between knowing a technology and knowing how to use it efficiently. The first cars were all but useful. Many people made fun of Karl Benz and his colleagues before their invention got widely recognised.
There are hundreds of examples of how new technologies, currently indispensable for us, had difficulties in being accepted. Regardless whether an invention will become a success or failure it always needs time to mature to be seriously discussed. This is also the case with virtual patients.
The first signs of change in the way people are learning were spotted already a few years ago. The intensively discussed paper “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” by Marc Prensky hit the nail on the head by distinguishing between two generations of IT-technology users: digital natives and digital immigrants.
The first group, born after 1980, included people who grew up surrounded by computers, mobile electronic devices and multimedia technologies and for whom their usage (also for learning) was almost ‘natural’ behaviour.
It is different for the digital immigrants who needed to adapt to new IT technologies and are often not as agile in using them as the new generation.
Of course the date 1980 is debatable, and the differentiation between these groups depends on geographical, cultural and personal factors. I can certainly recognise in myself elements of both generations, and would refrain from including myself clearly to any of these groups.
Nevertheless, it is clearly visible that the way students currently learn is different than it was even a few years ago.
This observation indicates beyond doubt that there is an urgent need for changes in the curricula. It is also unsurprising that the greatest supporters of virtual patients are among current students. The reason for this is for me obvious: the first wave of digital natives just reached medical college! So, the ICVP conference was organised to satisfy their needs.
A new virtual patient conference
To date, the main scientific events most frequently visited by researches in the topic of virtual patients were the Association for Medical Education in Europe (AMEE), Slice of Life run by the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, USA, and the MIE and MedBiquitous conferences.
Coverage of virtual patients started with single posters, followed by oral communications and eventually autonomous conference sessions and workshops. At AMEE 2008 in Prague, there weren’t enough chairs for participants interested in taking part in the eViP workshop on virtual patients!
The idea of organising the conference came initially from my supervisor, Prof. Irena Roterman-Konieczna. She had previously organised a full day session of the Grid Workshop Conference that looked at the usage of grid systems in life sciences. This event was supported by the EU-China Grid project.
Her idea was to organise a similar, but more autonomous event dedicated to virtual patients. My colleague Aleksandra Stacho? and I both instantly supported the idea.
Fortunately we had access to a very good conference venue, the new building of Congress and Didactic Centre of the Jagiellonian University Medical College, literally next door to our department. And the second big help for our endeavour was the Bio-Algorithm and Med-Systems Journal, which is edited by my department and the faculty. A special issue of this journal on virtual patients was a perfect place to publish the papers and abstracts submitted to the conference.
Furthermore, Krakow is not only a large academic centre, but a beautiful historical city worth visiting!
Spreading the word
We presented the idea of the conference on an internal meeting of the eViP programme organised in Munich in April 2008. It was instantly accepted and we obtained full support for that event from all project members. This sealed the deal: we were going to organise the First International Conference on Virtual Patients in Kraków.
The next big event in medical education after that decision was the AMEE congress organised in Prague in August 2008. It was the first place where we could publicly disseminate information about the conference and present the ICVP website.
The conference was endorsed by the MedBiquitous Consortium and the Polish Ministry of Health. I also advertised the conference at the eViP Programme stand at On-line Educa in Berlin (December 2008). With support from our partners eViP and MedBiquitous, we sent announcements to several mailing lists and discussion boards.
Afterwards we could only wait for the first abstracts to arrive. This was probably the hardest time for us, we couldn’t guarantee that we had raised enough awareness about the meeting. Thankfully most of the abstracts arrived just at the closing day or in the period of extended deadline. We accepted 50 of them.
The conference was a resounding success! In a survey organised after the conference, 80% of the respondents expressed their willingness to participate in the next ICVP event, which will be organised in London in April 2010.
ICVP 2009 was organised in Poland, a country in which virtual patients have only recently started to emerge. It was definitely a great challenge. We hope that it will accelerate the adoption of this learning method in our country.
Personally, I’ve learned a lot while organising and participating in the conference. Not just through the presentations, but the conversations we had between the sessions which will have a long lasting impact on the way I perceive virtual patients.
I hope that the conference influenced other participants in a similar way as me. I’m already looking forward to seeing you all again at ICVP10 in London!
By Andrzej Kononowicz, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland
Email [email protected] for information regarding the ICVP10 in London.