UAB expands telehealth training for students and clinicians

Written by  Karen Templeton

An asian doctor waves while video chatting with colleague.During this COVID-19 pandemic, providers are increasingly reliant on telehealth services to deliver care for their patients and prevent the spread of the coronavirus that is causing it. The emphasis on this technology, already in use by UAB Medicine, also underscores the importance of training University of Alabama at Birmingham’s health professions students on its efficient and effective use.

UAB’s Center for Interprofessional Education and Simulation brings the human element to interactive and simulated educational experiences through its Office of Standardized Patient Education (OSPE), which employs standardized patients (SPs) from the local community who are specifically trained to portray signs and symptoms of disease and injury.

“Social-distancing measures create unique obstacles in training and assessing the clinical skills of our health professions students.”

Within this controlled learning environment, approximately 6,900 students annually are evaluated on their abilities to communicate effectively with patients and colleagues to provide physical examinations and patient counseling.

This year, the training has been affected by the pandemic, says Shawn Galin, Ph.D., OSPE director and associate professor of medicine in the UAB School of Medicine Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine. “Social-distancing measures create unique obstacles in training and assessing the clinical skills of our health professions students. The health and safety of our students and SPs is paramount.”

Slight change of course

At the beginning of 2020, UAB Medicine already employed telehealth across 18 subspecialties and provided care via telehealth to nine facilities in Alabama and through 64 county health departments.

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Now the educational and clinical challenges presented by COVID-19 also present an opportunity to develop new technical and patient-interaction skills for students — and health professionals — using telehealth technology. In April, 56 physical therapy students were trained to interact with standardized patients in a virtual environment. “This highlights a new potential for the use of SPs across UAB,” Galin said.

“Our goal was to utilize best practices in health care simulation and physical therapy and conduct these in a telehealth environment to prepare doctoral students to deliver therapy via telehealth,” said Tara Pearce, director of Clinical Education and assistant professor of physical therapy in the UAB School of Health Professions. The students appreciated the opportunity to attain the same patient-care skills while gaining vital experience in telehealth, she said. 

Now OSPE is training 184 first-year medical students to assess standardized patients using the telehealth platform, Galin says. Upcoming virtual events are planned for students in the School of Health Professions genetic counseling program and for staff training at Children’s of Alabama.

Beyond the pandemic

“We believe technology-assisted patient interactions undoubtedly will be the way of the future to some degree,” Galin said. “The curriculum may be changed as we move forward to more definitively incorporate this mode of health care.”

“We believe technology-assisted patient interactions undoubtedly will be the way of the future to some degree.”

Using telehealth to limit the time health care providers spend with an infected patient should help contain the spread of the COVID-19 and other emerging viruses.

“UAB continues to demonstrate creative approaches to educating students during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Pam Benoit, Ph.D., UAB senior vice president of Academic Affairs and provost. “OSPE has highlighted new potential for training health care providers that will put UAB providers at the forefront of effective patient care during the pandemic and beyond.”