Using virtual patients to explore the clinical reasoning skills of medical students A mixed methods study

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3 April 2021

Published journal: Journal of Medical Internet Research



Improving clinical reasoning skills—the thought processes used by clinicians to formulate appropriate questions and diagnoses—is essential for reducing missed diagnostic opportunities. The electronic Clinical Reasoning Educational Simulation Tool (eCREST) was developed to improve the clinical reasoning of future physicians. A feasibility trial demonstrated acceptability and potential impacts; however, the processes by which students gathered data were unknown.


This study aims to identify the data gathering patterns of final year medical students while using eCREST and how eCREST influences the patterns.


A mixed methods design was used. A trial of eCREST across 3 UK medical schools (N=148) measured the potential effects of eCREST on data gathering. A qualitative think-aloud and semistructured interview study with 16 medical students from one medical school identified 3 data gathering strategies: Thorough, Focused, and Succinct. Some had no strategy. Reanalysis of the trial data identified the prevalence of data gathering patterns and compared patterns between the intervention and control groups. Patterns were identified based on 2 variables that were measured in a patient case 1 month after the intervention: the proportion of Essential information students identified and the proportion of irrelevant information gathered (Relevant). Those who scored in the top 3 quartiles for Essential but in the lowest quartile for Relevant displayed a Thorough pattern. Those who scored in the top 3 quartiles for Relevant but in the lowest quartile for Essential displayed a Succinct pattern. Those who scored in the top 3 quartiles on both variables displayed a Focused pattern. Those whose scores were in the lowest quartile on both variables displayed a Nonspecific pattern.


The trial results indicated that students in the intervention group were more thorough than those in the control groups when gathering data. The qualitative data identified data gathering strategies and the mechanisms by which eCREST influenced data gathering. Students reported that eCREST promoted thoroughness by prompting them to continuously reflect and allowing them to practice managing uncertainty. However, some found eCREST to be less useful, and they randomly gathered information. Reanalysis of the trial data revealed that the intervention group was significantly more likely to display a Thorough data gathering pattern than controls (21/78, 27% vs 6/70, 9%) and less likely to display a Succinct pattern (13/78, 17% vs 20/70, 29%; χ23=9.9; P=.02). Other patterns were similar across groups.


Qualitative data suggested that students applied a range of data gathering strategies while using eCREST and that eCREST encouraged thoroughness by continuously prompting the students to reflect and manage their uncertainty. Trial data suggested that eCREST led students to demonstrate more Thorough data gathering patterns. Virtual patients that encourage thoroughness could help future physicians avoid missed diagnostic opportunities and enhance the delivery of clinical reasoning teaching.


Plackett R, Kassianos AP, Timmis J, Sheringham J, Schartau P, Kambouri M
Using Virtual Patients to Explore the Clinical Reasoning Skills of Medical Students: Mixed Methods Study
J Med Internet Res 2021;23(6):e24723

doi: 10.2196/24723
PMID: 34085940
PMCID: 8214179

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