The impact of using virtual patients in preclinical pharmacology teaching

Persoulla A. Nicolaou, Mamoun El Saifi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


To reduce medication errors, medical educators must nurture the early development of rational and safe prescribing. Teaching pharmacology is challenging because it requires knowledge integration across disciplines, including physiology and pathology. Traditionally, pharmacology has been taught using lecture-based learning, which conveys consistent information but may promote passive learning. Virtual patients (VPs) have been used more recently to promote active learning, mainly in clinical years. Conversely, the use of VPs in preclinical disciplines, including pharmacology, is not well described. The objective was to investigate the potential benefits of combining traditional teaching with VPs in preclinical pharmacology teaching. All year 3 medical students (2 cohorts), enrolled in the Systematic Pharmacology I course (lectures: 3 h weekly; tutorial: 1 h weekly), were invited to participate in this naturalistic, prospective study. During tutorials, students were taught using case-based discussion and single-best-answer questions (control) in four tutorials and VPs (experimental) in the remaining six tutorials. The impact of VPs was assessed by 1) performance in written examinations, and 2) student satisfaction/perceptions, using a validated, modified questionnaire. Examination performance related to teaching in VP-based tutorials was significantly improved, compared with traditional tutorials. The level of difficulty of control and experimental assessment items was comparable, as determined by the Angoff method. Facilitation of learning was higher in VP tutorials, while a no-harm effect was noted on knowledge acquisition/maintenance, authenticity of learning, and disadvantages of learning. VPs may be effectively integrated in preclinical pharmacology teaching, with benefits on pharmacological knowledge and facilitation of learning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)363-369
Number of pages7
JournalAdvances in physiology education
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • medical education
  • pharmacology tutorial
  • preclinical teaching
  • virtual patients


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