Digital Realities Could Find a Place in the Pharmacy Classroom

MARCH 08, 2018
I'm sure you've heard of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) at this point. If you haven't, well, watch the upcoming film 'Ready Player One' to get a sense of where education could go in the future. Let's put it this way: we already know that video recorded classes lead to a drop in attendance on campuses. The reality is that when you can watch the material, why attend?
So, AR and VR are a form of technology that students could use to 'be there' in a virtual classroom. Replacing the PowerPoint lectures with a more 3D perspective may have its benefits. Take, for instance, lectures that deal with pharmacology. If a lecturer could present a 3D representative model of how a drug targets specific receptor pathways and then demonstrate its impact on the body, it may help (at least visual learners) understand better the overall premise. Replace anatomy and physiology, along with pharmacotherapeutics, with 3D body schematics and demonstrations of how drugs affect organ systems for clinical endpoints, and again, you could have a novel way to approach pharmacy education. Now, I haven't seen too much of this occurring yet, but the medical schools seem to be leading the path we could follow.
Recently, there was an interesting publication in JAMA highlighting the ways that medical education could change with AR/VR technology.1 Several items emphasized included clinical patient scenarios. For instance, instead of a SIM lab (which takes a lot of money, effort, and space), we could opt for a virtual lab instead. This could include patient encounters or novel ways to tackle patient interviewing skills, especially when role-playing may not turn out the way we want as educators, by having students team up or paying a significant sum for actors. I liked the idea of one company, Kognito, that was discussed. Essentially, after lectures, students would take their skills learned there and put them into practice with simulated patient scenarios to reinforce topics and ideas taught. It sounds better than homework, and the students (based on faculty interviewed) appeared better prepared for live interviews. Practice makes perfect, and a simulated environment is definitely low-risk for students to practice in without the ramifications of real-life mistakes.
It's a fascinating age, where with increased computer processing capabilities and the rise of AI, that we can get to the point where these simulations can go multiple ways, and hold almost a real-life conversation with students. It's possible now for no 2 students to have the same interaction with a simulated patient, and gives further attempts at practice a worthwhile endeavor.
Other areas include interactive anatomy lessons. While, for pharmacists, this may not go to the extreme that medical students perform (such as working with cadavers), but it does open up a new way of addressing the topic and demonstration. For instance, it allows medical students to practice techniques and procedures. The converse for pharmacists could be simulated pharmacy environments, such as working in a community or hospital setting or even compounding medications.
Benefits of using AR/VR for teaching is not only a new area of practice skills, but also the logistical barriers that can be crossed. Students no longer have to commute further distances, and the ability to open up distance classrooms (in the home) become possible. I'd be interested if we could see if such teaching environments could be used for CE's, and possibly replace having to travel to a medical conference in the future (though networking would probably take a hit and there are other benefits to attending a conference in person, I admit). 
So, is this all a positive thing that we should jump onto right away? I would say no, given some personal experience. I have tried Facebooks Occulus and Playstations VR experiences, and I cannot last more than a few minutes before I get a headache and eyestrain. I'm not the only one, though I do hope that as the technology improves it may be more welcoming to others in the future. One comment that stood out to me from the article: "Currently, a lecture can run for 2 hours, and students can quite happily sit there each week and absorb the information...Within virtual reality, we had optimal times of 10 minutes, maximum," which is a limit for a full experience that educators may want to replace.

As it stands, we may see AR/VR come into the classrooms in the next few years, but more as a tool to adjunctively reinforce topics or help give new practical experiences. I don't see lectures going away anytime soon.
  1. Kuehn, BM. Virtual and Augmented Reality Put a Twist on Medical Education. JAMA. 2018;319(8):756-758.

Timothy Aungst, PharmD
Timothy Dy Aungst, PharmD, is an assistant professor of pharmacy practice at MCPHS University. He graduated from Wilkes University Nesbitt School of Pharmacy and completed a PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Residency at St. Luke's University Hospital, and then a Clinical Geriatric Fellowship at MCPHS University. He is passionate about the rise of technology in health care and its application to pharmacy. He has published primarily on the role of mobile technology and mHealth, and made multiple national and international presentations on those topics. He blogs at, and you can find him on Twitter @TDAungst.
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