Virtual patients will help train future medics

Experts from the University of Nottingham and Isabel Healthcare will create an online learning platform enabling medical students and junior doctors to develop essential skills, even without face-to-face time with patients, thanks to funding from Innovate UK.

The funding will allow experts to create a learning platform using a unique combination of virtual cases and AI powered clinical decision support technology, that will help them to develop the knowledge, problem-solving and decision-making skills they need.

The need for this technology has been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, as enforced social distancing in the UK has significantly cut the amount of training time in the workplace for healthcare professionals. Without enough preparation, new doctors and nurses risk entering work unprepared and lacking core skills.

The movement of all higher education exclusively online across all UK medical schools in response to the pandemic has also exposed the lack of quality online learning resources for developing complex problem-solving and decision-making skills.

This new technology, known as the Isabel-EPIFFANY platform, not only has the potential to address the immediate training gap, but it could also transform the way knowledge and skills among medical students and junior doctors are developed over time.

The ‘virtual’ cases on the platform will be made by combining data from three different sources; symptoms and signs reported by real patients; artificial intelligence in the form of a clinical decision-support technology; and the expertise of clinicians.

The result is a new way of delivering online learning at scale, allowing healthcare professionals in training exposure to a far greater number of clinical case problems than would be available in any single workplace setting.

Another advantage of eLearning is that platforms can automate the creation of thousands of virtual patients, as well as automate the assessment of performance of healthcare professionals on those cases as well.

The project brings together a clinical decision-support technology company – Isabel Healthcare, with experts from the Schools of Medicine and Psychology at the University of Nottingham, Health Education, and NHS England’s Academic Health Science Networks.

An existing ‘proof-of-concept’ beta-version of the eLearning platform without clinical decision support technology was developed by Isabel, and enhanced in 2019 by the team at Nottingham.

The project will consolidate that partnership, and transform the previous beta version into a fully functioning working prototype of the platform embedded with the clinical decision support technology and capable of generating virtual patient cases.

For healthcare professionals, identifying what is wrong with a patient and knowing what to do about it, are probably the two most important things we do. The Isabel-EPIFFANY virtual patient platform allows users to practice these skills and get feedback on their performance from experts. I’m really pleased with the award of this grant since it’s come at a time when face-to-face contact with patients is extremely limited so it’s really needed by medical students and other healthcare professionals’.”

Dr Christopher Madan, Assistant Professor in the School of Psychology at the University added: “This grant will help us bridge from fundamental research into memory and decision making into medical education and clinical reasoning, improving how we train our healthcare professionals.”

Jason Maude, CEO and Founder of Isabel Healthcare said “We are very proud to have received this grant from Innovate which has come at just the right time to enable us and our partners to develop a promising beta product into a working prototype that could have a significant impact on medical education over the next few years. “

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