James Madison University

Grad Students Learning Through Virtual World

By: Daniel Vieth
Posted: September 28, 2015

Every day in hospitals and healthcare facilities around the country, medical professionals are tasked with coming together to find better solutions for their patients. Despite the importance for interprofessional communication, many educational programs lack opportunities for students to experience these situations before they graduate. This can lead to ineffective health communication, causing patients to suffer. Looking for ways to combat this issue, graduate programs from JMU’s College of Health and Behavioral Studies, including Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD), Nursing, Occupational Therapy (OT), and Physician's Assistant (PA) joined together to host the Virtual Interprofessional Clinic in the virtual reality platform SecondLife last year. The success of this clinic has led to more upcoming virtual clinics taking place later this year.

PHOTO: Screen capture of avatar

SecondLife is a virtual reality world where users produce avatars to create communities, play games or in this case pursue educational opportunities. “For me, SecondLife is just like the real world, but without the bounds,” explained Dr. Kathryn Stevens, the Director of the Madison Art Collection and architect behind JMU’s presence in SecondLife. “When you’re in a virtual world, there is a feeling of immediacy and intimacy that you don’t get with other information delivery systems: You connect more.” Compared to more traditional face-to-face or phone conferencing, the use of a virtual world allows for participants to come together from any distance with much more scheduling flexibility. “It’s really difficult, even in real life, for people to come together on a consistent basis,” said Dr. Twylla Kirchen, OT Program Director. “This simulation gives students the ability to login on any computer and interact in a collaborative way from a distance on the same patient case.”

The Virtual Interprofessional Clinic utilized SecondLife to bring together graduate student representatives from each of the disciplines, as well as a number of undergraduate and graduate student observers, to review a patient case study and demonstrate how each field would approach a diagnosis. “The students read over the medical records for a fictional patient, Ronnie, made assessments, and then met together in the virtual clinic to make the diagnosis,” said Dr. Carol Dudding, Director of the Speech-Language Pathology program for CSD. “It was essentially a virtual case-management conference, or case-mix, where the representatives for each discipline would give and explain their observations.” The clinic was followed by a debriefing between the representatives and audiences members, where participants discussed their observations and the impact of having this clinic in a virtual world. “I enjoyed having the conference in SecondLife rather than just a phone conference,” explained Kelly Rebholz, a second year OT student. “It was nice to have a visual idea of the situation and having the virtual conference eliminated the significant barrier of scheduling while still allowing interprofessional collaboration.”

PHOTO: Avatar presenting case

One of the main purposes for hosting this virtual conference was to help students become more comfortable with working with other medical disciplines, especially as similar case-mixes can be intimidating for newly graduated students entering their fields. “The impact of having all of the disciplines come together was tremendous,” said Jessica Gausmann, a second year Speech-Language Pathology graduate student. “Students will be responsible for working on an interprofessional team in the workforce, so the SecondLife conference allowed us to learn about each other’s roles and responsibilities, while also giving us the opportunity to advocate for our own disciplines.” A better understanding of the roles of other professionals leads to better health communication and better outcomes for patients.

After the success of this first clinic, the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Program took the reins to help host a series of upcoming Madison Interprofessional Clinics, with the help of a Health Resources and Services Administration grant. Expanding on the original conference design, professors will actually role-play as four different patients, with students from the different disciplines once again coming together to develop a diagnosis for each. Data collected from these clinics will also be used to evaluate the impact of using virtual worlds in healthcare education. “We’re actually presenting the first study on how cultural competence may increase in the students at the Collaborating Across Borders international conference towards the end of September,” explained Dr. Linda Hulton, Coordinator of DNP. “We’re anxious to know the outcomes.”

“I think JMU is breaking into an exciting world of possibilities for academics in health care professions with the SecondLife conferences,” exclaimed Gausmann. “As technology becomes more advanced and accessible, I think it will be critical for healthcare professionals to stay current with new applications and integration of virtual worlds in clinical practice.” Through SecondLife, JMU has given students the opportunity to use cutting edge technologies to work collaboratively and better prepare them for their future careers.