What do you think of virtual patients?

A report from the ‘Virtual Patients and Simulation in Medical Education” mini-symposium.

Sian Claire Owen

Network cableOn January 16th 2010 teachers, learning technologists and students attended the ‘Virtual Patients and Simulation in Medical Education’ mini-symposium held at Maastricht University in The Netherlands.

The aim of the symposium was to highlight the value of using virtual patients and simulations in medical education.

Guest speakers included Professor Guid Oei from Maxima Medical Centre in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, Terry Poulton from St George’s University of London, Bas de Leng from Maastricht University in The Netherlands, and Sören Huwendiek from the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

The speakers focused on various aspects of virtual patients and simulation – including the role of virtual patients (VPs) in assessment, integration of VPs into the medical curricula, and the importance of emotional and phenomenal realism in simulated emergency scenarios.

VPs are “Great, and confusing”

At the end of the symposium, delegates were asked: “What do you think of virtual patients?”

“Great, and confusing” was the general consensus. Two major issues were raised: the effort and financial cost associated with creating VPs.

As Sören Huwendiek explains: “The cost depends totally on the case. Some simple virtual patients can take around 20 hours to create, but those which require in-depth explanations from specialists, or which have multi-media added can take up to 160 hours.”

Even creating simple VPs will be more labour-intensive than creating paper-based cases, and it stands to reason that the more sophisticated the VP the higher the cost.

However, as Terry Poulton from St George’s University of London says: “It can take up to four times as much time to make an interactive case compared to the paper-based cases. But we need to look at the boundaries. Technology is improving all the time, and gradually the cost will come down.”

“We know that VPs have their place, but where?”

Delegates felt that it was important not to replace real patients with VPs or simulations. However, as patients spend less time in hospital, students are often unable to spend a great deal of time with real patients. Reduced contact with the patients is a problem encountered across Europe, and VPs are a useful tool for bridging that gap.

VPs are not designed to replace real-patient contact, but they can help students develop their clinical reasoning skills. As Sören Huwendiek explains: “Students themselves are aware of the value of using a wide range of tools that, in the right context can be very powerful. But they also appreciate that VPs will not supersede real-patient contact.”

Virtual patients can bridge the gap

This symposium gave eViP members a valuable opportunity to explain the place of VPs and simulation in medical education.

The main aim of eViP is to create a bank of VPs that are freely available under a Creative Commons License. The ability to share, repurpose and enrich the bank of existing VPs addresses issues of effort and financial cost.

Chara Balasubramaniam, eViP Programme Manager from SGUL explains: “The time, effort and cost of creating VPs is one of the major reasons behind the current levels research into virtual patients.”

“The full bank of eViP VPs will be available for people to use from September 2010 onwards.”

For further information please explore the eViP website or contact us

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