What is a Virtual Patient?

Electronic virtual patients (VPs) are defined as “interactive computer simulations of real-life clinical scenarios for the purpose of medical training, education, or assessment”. Medicine and healthcare face the same problems: a need for interactive scenario based learning that provides alternatives to student-patient contact, which is declining because of the healthcare budget constraints that limit clinical teaching, and the reduction in the time that patients stay in hospital. VPs are now recognised by the medical education community as the best, and maybe the only effective tools for developing clinical reasoning. Such simulations provide students with a reliable and safe environment in which to rehearse and practice physical and communication skills and develop clinical reasoning ability. Students can test their knowledge and skills safely and frequently, whilst at the same time drawing upon learning resources designed to extend their understanding.

The courses in these subjects are largely supported by workplace learning, and in the clinical years these are the ‘clinical attachments’. There are a number of initiatives to support these attachments with virtual patients. Despite persuasive evidence of their effectiveness, virtual patients are not widespread in medical and healthcare curricula. VPs are “time and resource intensive to produce”, which is completely prohibitive to institutions that lack robust e-learning programs. These challenges and others have severely restricted the impact of VP simulation on the undergraduate medical curriculum. Where VPs are produced, development tends to be confined within single institutions, with little evidence of sharing. Those institutions that do prepare VPs have little opportunity to make them for more than one subject area.

For examples of virtual patients, please visit www.virtualpatients.eu