UW News

December 16, 1999

University of Washington medical students training at distant sites gather at Virtual Clinic to work together on case studies

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

University of Washington (UW) third-year medical students training at distant family medicine sites across a five-state region regularly report to the Red, Blue or Yellow Clinic. These are not actual patient-care settings, but divisions of a Web-based Virtual Clinic, a new learning tool for medical students. The students, often separated by hundreds of miles, meet online at the Virtual Clinic to work together on a case study.

The students participate in the Virtual Clinic while training in Anchorage and Wrangell, Alaska; Boise and Pocatello, Idaho; Havre and Whitefish, Mont., Buffalo and Powell, Wyo.; and Anacortes, Bremerton, Olympia, Omak, Renton, Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, and Yakima, Wash.

The current case study explores end-of-life care as well as the patient’s and providers’ spiritual beliefs. Future discussions will include the changing U.S. health-care system. Additional case topics are under consideration.

The medical students join the online discussion at least three times a week. On Fridays, students get an update on new issues the patient has posed. An attending physician monitors the discussion. However, the students largely teach each other by presenting information they’ve discovered and by suggesting points to ponder. This type of educational approach is called problem-based learning.

Because experts frequently disagree on what should be done for a patient, the case studies don?t have right or wrong answers. The aim of the Virtual Clinic is to encourage students to problem-solve in the context of a common patient situation. When the clinic closes at the end of a three-week session, the faculty tutor summarizes his or her own recommendations.

UW family physician Dr. Tom Greer, associate professor of family medicine, and medical educator Dr. Patricia Stern established the Virtual Clinic. UW family physician Dr. Stu Farber, assistant professor of family medicine and an expert on palliative care, authored the case study. Palliative care is the treatment of the physical and emotional suffering of incurable illness.

Several ideas from three student focus groups have been incorporated into the Virtual Clinic. A UW Tools for Transformation grant — an initiative to support educational innovations University-wide — funds the Virtual Clinic.