The learners' perspectives on Virtual Patient Simulation systems (VPS) are quintessential to their successful development and implementation. Focus group interviews were conducted in order to explore the opinions of medical students on the educational use of a VPS, the Web-based Simulation of Patients application (Web-SP).
Two focus group interviews-each with 8 undergraduate students who had used Web-SP cases for learning and/or assessment as part of their Internal Medicine curriculum in 2007-were performed at the Faculty of Medicine of Universidad el Bosque (Bogota), in January 2008. The interviews were conducted in Spanish, transcribed by the main researcher and translated into English. The resulting transcripts were independently coded by two authors, who also performed the content analysis. Each coder analyzed the data separately, arriving to categories and themes, whose final form was reached after a consensus discussion.
Eighteen categories were identified and clustered into five main themes: learning, teaching, assessment, authenticity and implementation. In agreement with the literature, clinical reasoning development is envisaged by students to be the main scope of VPS use; transferable skills, retention enhancement and the importance of making mistakes are other categories circumscribed to this theme. VPS should enjoy a broad use across clinical specialties and support learning of topics not seen during clinical rotations; they are thought to have a regulatory effect at individual level, helping the students to plan their learning. The participants believe that assessment with VPS should be relevant for their future clinical practice; it is deemed to be qualitatively different from regular exams and to increase student motivation. The VPS design and content, the localization of the socio-cultural context, the realism of the cases, as well as the presence and quality of feedback are intrinsic features contributing to VPS authenticity.
Five main themes were found to be associated with successful VPS use in medical curriculum: Learning, Teaching, Assessment, Authenticity and Implementation. Medical students perceive Virtual Patients as important learning and assessment tools, fostering clinical reasoning, in preparation for the future clinical practice as young doctors. However, a number of issues regarding VPS design, authenticity and implementation need to be fulfilled, in order to reach the potential educational goals of such applications.
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