UNSW Medicine students now have access to a world first platform that not only teaches vital clinical skills in an online and interactive environment, but is also part of a collaborative research project hoping to better understand and assess non-verbal communication.
The platform– called OSPIA (Online Simulated Patient Interaction and Assessment) – is designed to teach students communication skills, required for taking a medical history, by replicating real clinical interactions online. According to Senior Lecturer in Medical Education Dr Silas Taylor, teaching these skills online is not only an effective teaching method, but also reflects the new realities of telemedicine with recent research stating that 50% of medical ‘transactions’ will be by telehealth systems by 2020*, and that this form of interaction could become the norm for regional and remote communities.
“While we already equip our students with a high standard of clinical skills thanks to our existing teaching program , it is vital, in light of technological advances when it comes to medicine, that our students also have good online communication skills, such that they are as effective, and respectful and caring, in that environment as they are in face-to-face consultations. And that is what OSPIA aims to do.” he said.
Beyond preparing students for the future of healthcare, the benefits of OSPIA are numerous. The online program makes opportunities for students and SPs to interact more flexible and not restricted to a particular place (like a campus or hospital) or within working hours. Further, online delivery allows SPs to provide real-time feedback with ‘smiley face/frowny face’ tools, and free-text comments during consultations as well as enabling them to become the assessor. An appropriate shift according to Dr Taylor.
“Who else’s opinion of a student doctor’s communication skills should count more than a patient’s?” he said.
The project also creates an effective platform for crowdsourcing volunteers, and the OSPIA team have already established a relationship with PriceWaterhouseCooper Australia, whose staff will be the first to engage with the program as simulated patients en masse.
Data collected from the OSPIA program will feed into a collaborative research project with the Sydney Medical School and University of Sydney’s Faculty of Engineering & Information Technologies. Here, a team led by Professor Rafael Calvo will use data collected during OSPIA interactions - which utilises the EQclinic developed by the Positive Computing lab at the University of Sydney - to aid their work developing technology that allow non-verbal communication behaviours (NVCB), such as head movements, facial expressions and hand gestures to be ‘read’ and measured by the computer’s camera and software algorithms.
According to Dr Taylor, both students and the community are seeing benefits from the program.
“Students are relishing the opportunity to practice key clinical skills in a safe, supportive environment and are reporting more confidence in their skills and just as importantly a greater understanding of the importance of good communication skills to better consultations with patients.”
* CSIRO, ‘A digitally-enabled health system’, 2014