USC University of Southern California

USC Virtual Dental Clinic Launches This Month

A new clinic located within the online universe of Second Life will give dental students the opportunity to test their logic and decision-making skills with interactive virtual patients.

The clinic’s patients consist of chatbots, computer programs designed to respond to and mimic human conversation, said Glenn Clark, Orofacial Pain and Oral Medicine Program Director with the USC School of Dentistry. With the help of a large question-and-answer bank written by Clark, the virtual patients can respond to nearly 400 different queries and have a variety of ailments, including lockjaw, oral lesions, and neuralgia.

The virtual dental clinic allows students to complete the entire patient-care experience, from taking medical histories and ordering tests to diagnosing the problem and prescribing treatment. Students will be evaluated on how accurately and efficiently they treat their virtual patients, and each patient has a 30-minute time limit similar to a real-life dental appointment. Points can be lost if a student doesn’t complete the appointment in time, orders unnecessary tests or treatment, or misdiagnoses the problem.

“The data is all there, but the students have to make sense of the data,” Clark said. “If they don’t hone in on the good questions, they’ll lose points.”

The virtual clinic allows for easy evaluation and also allows students to log on at their leisure and practice treating patients at any time, Clark said. Although every dental student completes a one-week rotation observing faculty members treating patients in the Orofacial Pain and Oral Medicine Clinic, the virtual clinic will safely give them experience with tackling complex orofacial problems independently.

“Dental students are usually not the primary doctor for these types of problems, but their knowledge isn’t really tested if they are simply observing me treat a patient,” he said.