Dementia simulation gives med students insight on condition

Brendan Murphy
Staff Writer
AMA Wire
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Seeing things from the patient’s perspective can—in some instances—involve not seeing, not hearing and not feeling. That’s what fourth-year medical students at the University of Florida College of Medicine are discovering, with the aid of simulation technology.

During their geriatric rotations, Florida medical students are experiencing the Virtual Dementia Tour, a product that uses sensory tools to simulate the symptoms of patients suffering from the condition. The experience helps students understand the scope and impact of this issue.


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Mallory Otto, MD, is a clinical assistant professor in the University of Florida’s Geriatric Medicine Division. She is also the geriatric clerkship director in the Department of Aging and Geriatric Research. Dr. Otto explained how her institution is using the program during the recent AMA ChangeMedEd® 2017 National Conference.

“In the hospital settings and nursing home care, there are a lot of problems with providers who are not educated on the struggles somebody with dementia might be facing,” Dr. Otto said. “There’s a need to understand that [patients with dementia] aren’t necessarily able to control a lot of their behaviors and outbursts and aggression that might come along with their disease. [Med students and physicians] might react negatively toward them when in fact it’s a disease and they aren’t really in control of it.”

    Understanding leads to empathy

    The Virtual Dementia Tour is designed to give participants a firsthand view of the physical and cognitive impairments patients with dementia experience. During the interactive portion, participants are put in a dark room wearing glasses, headphones and gloves that simulate the tactile and sensory limitations that often come along with dementia. Participants in the tour are then asked to perform basic activities of daily living, with which patients with dementia often struggle.

    “I had one woman go through the course, and she was kind of nervously laughing the entire time,” Dr. Otto said. “She sounded exactly like a patient we had in the nursing home who had advanced dementia.”

    In answering research questions following the experience, students touted it as a tool that gave them a better understanding of the condition and more empathy to those living with it.

    “Empathy was something they were able to draw out of their experience,” Dr. Otto said. Students were “blown away” by what they absorbed. “Learning through the actual experience of going through the simulation, they gained a lot from that, even without necessarily having the exposure to patients.”

    The Virtual Dementia Tour offers a chance for standardized curriculum on dementia among University of Florida medical students who are encountering patients in a variety of settings during their geriatric clerkship.

    “Simulation is critical to how students are learning,” Dr. Otto said. “Simulation helps us to at least bring one of these major topics to the floor for everybody. Cognitive impairment and physical disability are things you might not think are easy to recreate for someone who does not suffer from them. [The simulation] changes their feelings about that patient population.”

    The presentation about simulating dementia was among dozens that took place during the ChangeMedEd conference. The event showcased how the AMA, through its Accelerating Change in Medical Education initiative, is working to reimagine and shape the future of medical education. 

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