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What Is a Virtual Patient?

Jillian O Keeffe
Jillian O Keeffe

When a student of the health-care industry is learning about what to do in certain situations, a virtual patient can help test his or her choices, without having to risk the health of a real patient. Using computer technology, the student interacts with a program that represents a real person, real illnesses and relevant medical intervention options. His or her choices are then recorded, and a supervisor can help the student to figure out what, if anything, could be made better in dealing with real situations.

Historically, a student of medicine learned about the theory of the human body and illness, and then learned about diagnosis and treatment in interactions with real patients. As the risk of malpractice is high when a student makes decisions about a patient's welfare, the chance to learn in person and gain knowledge from trial and error is highly regulated in modern medicine. Familiarity with patient symptoms and the possible causes for these symptoms is essential to medical skill and knowledge, so instead of a real person, students can now practice on a virtual patient.


A program that presents a virtual patient profile to the student generally includes a lot of relevant data. This is normally information that is obvious to the student, or that the patient is likely to inform a doctor about. Examples include the age and sex of patient and information like pain location in the body.

The student then has to ask questions that are important to diagnosis. These include questions about previous medical history, duration of pain and other symptoms of illness that the patient may have forgotten to talk about. Generally in diagnosis, positive answers to some questions can lead a doctor into a particular line of questioning. This is because it is all the bits of information together that leads the doctor to a single diagnosis, to the exclusion of other possible causes.

Generally, each virtual patient program keeps track of which questions the student asked, and which potentially important questions he or she failed to ask. At the end of the virtual patient session, the student can find out whether he or she was right or wrong. If he or she was wrong, the program can show where the interviewing process went off track. As well as students, people who are already qualified in the medical arena can practice on the programs, to help keep diagnostic skills sharp. Other specialized virtual patient programs, apart from those designed for medical students, include those for nurses and those for pharmacists.

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