Virtual patients reflecting the clinical reality of primary care - a useful tool to improve cultural competence

BMC Med Educ. 2021 May 11;21(1):270. doi: 10.1186/s12909-021-02701-z.


Background: Virtual patients are educational tools that may be described as case-based interactive computer simulations of clinical scenarios. In terms of learning outcomes, improved clinical reasoning skills and knowledge acquisition have been shown. For further exploring the role of virtual patients in medical education, a greater focus on context-specific cases, combined with suitable educational activities, has been suggested. A knowledge gap has been identified in cultural competence in primary care. As primary care physicians are often the main medical providers for patients with refugee backgrounds, they would probably benefit from improved training focusing on how to apply cultural competence in everyday work. Using virtual patient cases, as a complement to clinical training, may be one way forward. The aim of this study was therefore to explore a learner perspective on the educational use of a virtual patient system designed to contribute to training in cultural competence in a primary care context.

Methods: Three virtual patient cases portraying patients with refugee backgrounds were developed. The cases addressed various issues and symptoms common in primary care consultations, while also incorporating intercultural aspects. The system also provided the informants with individualized feedback. Primary care physicians and medical students were invited to test the cases and participate in an interview about their experience. Data was analyzed using qualitative content analysis.

Results: The analysis generated the theme Virtual patients might help improve cultural competence in physicians and medical students by complementing knowledge gained through the informal curriculum. Informants at different educational levels found it suitable as a tool for introducing the topic and for reflecting on one's own consultations. It could also compensate for the predominant informal manner of learning cultural competence, described by the informants.

Conclusions: Virtual patients could be useful for gaining cultural competence in a primary care context. Advantages that could benefit learners at both pre- and post-graduate levels are decreased dependence on the informal curriculum and being presented with an illustrative way of how cultural competence may be applied in the consultation.

Keywords: Computer simulation; Culture; General practice; Medical education; Primary care; Qualitative research.

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Competence
  • Cultural Competency*
  • Curriculum
  • Humans
  • Primary Health Care
  • Students, Medical*