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The concept of virtual patients (VPs) encompasses a great variety of predominantly case-based e-learning modules with different complexity and fidelity levels. Methods for effective placement of VPs in the process of medical education are sought. The aim of this study was to determine whether the introduction of a voluntary virtual patients module into a basic life support with an automated external defibrillator (BLS-AED) course improved the knowledge and skills of students taking the course.
Half of the students were randomly assigned to an experimental group and given voluntary access to a virtual patient module consisting of six cases presenting BLS-AED knowledge and skills. Pre- and post-course knowledge tests and skills assessments were performed, as well as a survey of students' satisfaction with the VP usage. In addition, time spent using the virtual patient system, percentage of screen cards viewed and scores in the formative questions in the VP system throughout the course were traced and recorded.
The study was conducted over a six week period and involved 226 first year medical students. The voluntary module was used by 61 (54%) of the 114 entitled study participants. The group that used VPs demonstrated better results in knowledge acquisition and in some key BLS-AED action skills than the group without access, or those students from the experimental group deliberately not using virtual patients. Most of the students rated the combination of VPs and corresponding teaching events positively.
The overall positive reaction of students and encouraging results in knowledge and skills acquisition suggest that the usage of virtual patients in a BLS-AED course on a voluntary basis is feasible and should be further investigated.