Virtual patients

The male patient sits in the exam room, blinking calmly and answering questions about his medical history.

But in this scenario, the man is a computer-generated patient and the interaction is projected on a movie screen in a UF auditorium built as a learning tool for medical students and residents.

“It’s not to replace standardized patients,” said Benjamin Lok, Ph.D., an associate professor in UF’s computer and information science and engineering department at the College of Engineering. “It’s to really complement and provide additional experiences.”

Benjamin Lok, Ph.D., demonstrates how computer-generated patients can be used in the medical school classroom. The lecture was the final presentation in the UF College of Medicine’s Medical Education Week Seminar Series. Photo by Charles Poulton

Lok’s lecture, “New Innovations in Medical Student and Resident Education: The Virtual Patient,” was the final presentation in the UF College of Medicine’s Medical Education Week Seminar Series. The event ran from Feb. 20-25 and included the Feb. 22 Medical Education Banquet.

UF is one of six universities and 35 researchers that are part of The Virtual Patients Group, which is developing experiences with virtual humans to provide healthcare students, professionals, and the public with communication skills and medical education. More than 7,000 people have interacted with the group’s virtual patients, which can answer 2,500 questions and be part of 50 scenarios.

The group’s work is supported by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Association of Surgical Education and Rehabilitation Outcomes Research Center.

Casey B. White, Ph.D., from the University of Virginia School of Medicine, also spoke at the seminar. White said standardized patients, which are human actors trained to act as real patients, are a precious resource, but they are expensive and other alternatives need to be explored. 

One of the nice things about virtual patients is that they can be created to be any age, race and culture and programmed to exhibit rare conditions that can be hard to naturally find in a typical population, White said. They can also be used to teach patient-centered care, patient safety, team training and cultural competency. 

Lok said his team currently collaborates with the department of anesthesiology, but it is looking for more research partnerships. 

“I’m excited to define the boundaries and push out the boundaries,” Lok said.