To the Editor:
In the September 2016 issue of Academic Medicine, Berman and colleagues1 discuss the role of virtual patients (VPs) in the future of medical education. The article includes an inventory of VPs currently used in medical education, and an articulation of learning theories and of application of these theories when VPs are integrated into the medical curriculum. However, VPs are actually a subset of virtual humans (VHs) that can represent many roles other than patients.
When medical educators and scientists who possess deep technical knowledge work closely together with VHs, they can envision scenarios that extend well beyond the physician (or physician-in-training) and the patient. VHs can be mentors, team members, attendings, family members—all relevant roles within health sciences education.2 For example, our research team has shown that VHs can influence behaviors of real health care providers, thereby serving as role models for other team members and colleagues.3
We are preparing learners to work in complex environments, interacting with other professionals while caring for patients. Communicating effectively within a team is urgent because lapses in teamwork and communication are the leading causes of errors and patient harm.4 The results of collaborations between disciplines such as computer science/engineering and health sciences education have been described. In scripted and technically driven scenarios, these collaborations often complement each other, and as such, descriptions and results appear in the journals of multiple disciplines well beyond health professions education.2,3
We agree with what Berman and colleagues shared in their article in terms of learning theories and the creativity we can use to achieve educational goals. As we facilitate discussion of VHs in the medical education literature, we hope that Academic Medicine might invite a more comprehensive article exploring the roles of VHs in the health sciences developed from cross-disciplinary teamwork.
Casey B. White, PhD
Associate dean and associate professor for medical education, research, and instruction, University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville, Virginia; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adam Wendling, MD
Associate professor of anesthesiology and division chief, Obstetric Anesthesiology, University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville, Florida.
Samsun Lampotang, PhD
Professor of anesthesiology, University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville, Florida.
Simulation engineer, University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville, Florida.
Graduate student, University of Florida College of Engineering, Gainesville, Florida.
Benjamin Lok, PhD
Professor, University of Florida College of Engineering, Gainesville, Florida.
1. Berman NB, Durning SJ, Fischer MR, Huwendiek S, Triola MM. The role for virtual patients in the future of medical education. Acad Med. 2016;91:1217–1222.
2. Cordar A, Robb A, Wendling A, Lampotang S, Lok B. Brinkman WP, Broekens J, Heylen D. Virtual role-models: Using virtual humans to train best communication practices for healthcare teams. Intelligent Virtual Agents: 15th International Conference, IVA 2015, Delft, The Netherlands, August 26–28, 2015, Proceedings. 2015:Cham, Switzerland: Springer;229–238.
3. Kohn T, Corrigan JM, Donaldson MS. To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System. 1999.Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
4. Sims EM. Reusable, lifelike virtual humans for mentoring and role-playing. Comput Educ. 2007;49(1):75–92.