Net tool aids medics

April 14, 2000

An internet-based project that enables health-profession students to hone their diagnostic skills on a diverse set of "virtual patients" has won increased funding from the Nuffield Foundation.

Richard Cox from the University of Sussex and Carmel Lum from Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh, will use the foundation's Pounds 134,000 award to extend the Patient Assessment Training System (PATSy).

The model could be adapted for use in any discipline that involves case-study analysis.

The current system features 20 in-depth cases of language disorder, with video, sound and interactive tests presented through a browser interface. The files cover a variety of adult acquired speech and language disorders, with two child cases describing delayed language and phonological development. The system has been used extensively by speech therapy students.

The team is extending PATSy for use by students and researchers in the areas of childhood dyslexia, medical rehabilitation and neuropsychology, including Parkinson's disease, dementia and head injury.

It is working with the universities of York, Oxford and Edinburgh to develop the system for other health professionals.

Dr Lum, a project co-director based in Queen Margaret's speech and language sciences department, said most students only saw a few patients on clinical placement and therefore found difficulties in linking actual experience with wide-ranging, lecture-based information.

"We have been able to develop a component of standardisation of clinical experience and an objective assessment of student's diagnostic skills," she said.

Dr Cox, a cognitive scientist in the school of cognitive and computing sciences at Sussex, said: "The problem with clinical training is that it is a bit ad hoc. The patients that students see may be very similar and the students' needs are given low priority in a busy hospital. PATSy can provide access to rare cases and an opportunity for students to practise clinical reasoning before they meet live patients. It's a useful adjunct to their training."

The system, in use at 11 universities, can be used by researchers and practising clinicians who want to update their knowledge, he said.

Dr Lum said the system also allowed researchers to visualise how students thought through analysis of detailed logs of user sessions and responses to key questions.

"It would also be useful for students as a self-analysis tool and a basis for discussions with tutors," she said.

The system shell is thought to be unique. "As far as I'm aware, it is the only one in existence," Dr Cox said. "We've had interest from users in the United States and Australia and are looking at selling the system shell. Any profit will be ploughed back into the project."

Dr Cox said the system's software, written by Jonathan Kilgower at Edinburgh University, included a sophisticated administration and security system to ensure confidentiality and best use.


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