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What is a virtual patient?

Virtual patients are defined as ‘interactive computer simulations of real-life clinical scenarios for the purpose of medical training, education or assessment’[1]. They are also known as virtual scenarios when used in other disciplines outside medicine and healthcare for other types of learning or training which are focused on decision-making. 

There are different types and designs of virtual scenarios [2]. We use a branched form which allows the learners to think about and make decisions from the options presented, based on the clinical information provided within the scenario. The same systems can be adapted to present simple linear scenarios where learners move from page to page with opportunities to test their knowledge using interactive assessment questions. The use of scenarios, both linear or branched can be used to support diverse learning activities; these include small group teaching such as problem-based learning, large group teaching such as lectures or Team-based learning, and self-directed learning activities and assessment.

When the learner selects an option the scenario will progress with either feedback or more clinical information which advances the scenario. In any case, the scenario should reflect the consequences of the decisions made by the learner, either within the narrative or through the options that are subsequently available. This makes virtual patients an effective resource for exposing learners to a wider range and volume of patient scenarios than they may be able to encounter in their clinical placements, with time spent with patients and access to rarer conditions being limited. Virtual patients are a great way for students to develop their clinical reasoning skills, allowing them to make patient management choices in a safe environment before going into practice.

If you want to create your own virtual scenario join the free online course called ‘using virtual scenarios to create effective learning’ delivered on FutureLearn. You are also able to play a number of scenarios on the Widening Access to Virtual Education Scenarios (WAVES) project site. Many virtual patients have been developed as part of funded project collaborations both nationally and internationally; such projects include CLUEDUP, TAME, CROESUS, ePBLnet, Generation 4, G4.5, eViP, and PREVIEW.

Example problem-based learning virtual patient

Here is an example of a branched problem-based learning (PBL) case called Edward Payne. The scenario is split into three tutorials and runs over a week. The topics covered in this case are tuberculosis, fever, weight loss, infection, inflammation, and hypersensitivity.

[1] Ellaway, R., Candler, C., Greene, P. and Smothers, V., 2006. An Architectural Model for MedBiquitous Virtual Patients. Baltimore, MD: MedBiquitous.

[2] Huwendiek, Sören, Bas A De Leng, Nabil Zary, Martin R Fischer, Jorge G Ruiz, and Rachel Ellaway. ‘Towards a Typology of Virtual Patients.’ Medical Teacher 31, no. 8 (August 2009): 743–48.


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