Virtual patients and swine flu

How can virtual patients help medical students and health care professionals deal with a pandemic?

The WHO has formerly declared the world to be in the grip of a global swine flu pandemic. The British Medical Assocaition has published it’s guidelines for GPs and healthcare professionals. Needless to say, each country will have its own specific contingency plan.

Health services will be put under enormous pressure, with the predicted surge in patients, limited resources, and staff not only dealing with effective diagnosis and treatment but also managing the anxious general public.

So will virtual patients and/or virtual reality play a role in global pandemics?

In 2005 a plague swept through the virtual World of Warcraft game, infecting over 4 million players and ‘killing’ millions. Interestingly, the simulated computer virus even mutated in certain players who were not affected, but became carriers. This is a great example of how virtual simulations can be useful to the medical community. In this case, the WoW scenario became an invaluable resource, allowing scientists to examine how humans might behave in real life pandemics.

Virtual patients and virtual scenarios give students the opportunity to experience the following:

  • Simulated front-line experience with the general public;
  • Allocation of limited resources under pressure;
  • Study the epidemiology of epidemics; and
  • Experience in effective diagnosis and treatment.

And in the spirit of eViP, virtual patients can be repurposed to suit contingency plans and cultural requirements for different countires. Of course, virtual patients will never replace real-life experience, but they could prove to be a useful training tool in these circumstances.

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