Building Competence and Confidence: UW occupational therapy students virtually assess patient with spinal cord injury

By Vanessa Eisch, Engage Communications
May 20, 2013

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Hark with students in the field

"Okay, I can do this," I thought as I walked into the hospital room.

"Hello, my name is Vanessa. I'm going to be your occupational therapist today," I said.

"What's an occupational therapist?" my patient asked.

I froze. I'd practiced explaining what I now do for a living a thousand times in my head, but I still wasn't sure how to get the words out smoothly.

"How do you walk in and explain what OT is? My students say they struggled with this the longest," says Debbie Bebeau, UW-Madison occupational therapy clinical instructor.

As one of Bebeau's former students and a newly practicing occupational therapist, I can attest to how terrifying it is to walk into a patient's room to conduct an initial evaluation.

"We always talk about what should be in your evaluation, but how do you have that conversation with real people?" Bebeau says.

Bebeau directly addressed this fear and intimidation when she designed her project for the Engage Adaptation Situated Learning: Case, Story, Place Award.

Technology consultants Blaire Bundy and Al Barnicle, as well as Engage project assistant Jonghun Kim, helped Bebeau create a virtual case study using the Case Scenario Builder authoring tool.

Using video, the virtual case study takes occupational therapy students step by step through an evaluation of a real patient who suffered a spinal cord injury.

Hark with students in the field

Students must review a patient chart, choose appropriate assessments and medical equipment and quickly problem solve when the patient shows signs of experiencing a medical emergency--all skills needed not only in the real world, but also to pass the national board exam and receive a license to practice.

"It's a way to train OTs in a virtual context. There's a lot of research out there that students learn best in a real context. We saw this as a way of bridging between didactic coursework and fieldwork to put the student in a context virtually that would simulate fieldwork," Bebeau explains.

She believes this blended learning model will be further enhanced when the patient who appears in the video joins students for a lab discussion to go over decision-making during the case study.

Bebeau says the OT Department's ultimate goal is to thread a virtual case study through several courses showing students the big picture of how disability can affect multiple generations within a family.

For now, she's focused on investigating how blended learning affects student learning. In fact, that's what prompted her to pursue an Ed.D. from Edgewood College.

"The research that's gone into how much better people perform when they learn in context¿ spoke to me. Am I teaching my students in context? Here's a way to virtually do it," she says enthusiastically.

Bebeau presented her project at the Engage Celebration lunch and will pilot the virtual case study next fall with second year OT students.

As for me, while I'm slowly improving my OT speech to patients, I take heart that Bebeau's project will help future UW OTs have even more confidence when they first walk into that hospital room.