Published on 28/02/2024
Two pharmacy students working on a computer
  • Aston Pharmacy School is using SimConverse software to train its students in common situations they will encounter in practice
  • Students interact with a virtual character that uses generative AI to respond to questions
  • The software can be accessed from anywhere and was developed in collaboration with placement partners.

Aston Pharmacy School has introduced new generative artificial intelligence (AI) simulation software to train students in common situations they will encounter in practice and ensure they are properly prepared for their pharmacy placements.

The software, SimConverse, was introduced at the start of the 2023/24 academic year. Students using the platform interact with a virtual character in scenarios such as discussing illnesses, something they will encounter in community pharmacies, or taking drug histories from a patient, as they will need to do in a hospital pharmacy.

Generative AI is a type of artificial intelligence that can generate text and images in response to prompts from a user, which learns from its input training data to generate new data with similar characteristics. In the case of the SimConverse scenarios developed for Aston Pharmacy School, the AI character can, for example, give details of symptoms in response to questions from a pharmacy student. A student using the platform will get two attempts at each scenario.

The SimConverse software was co-created with placement providers. The providers were asked what they wanted students to be able to do when they arrived at their placements and this was incorporated into the training. Having a platform that can provide some of the training reduces the amount of training placement providers need to deliver and gives students more time to contribute to the workplace.

SimConverse screenshot

The feedback from students has so far been very positive. One of the major benefits of SimConverse is that the students can access it and complete training modules wherever they are, on a mobile or on a laptop.

SimConverse is now being trialled by Aston Medical School for both medicine and nursing students, and by the School of Optometry as a result of the success seen in the Pharmacy School. Its introduction won Aston University’s Vice-Chancellor’s award for digital innovation in teaching in 2023.

SimConverse is used as an additional tool alongside conventional teaching and traditional simulation techniques, where volunteers will follow a script to test a student’s knowledge, following current best practice.

Natalie Lewis, associate dean for postgraduate and professional programmes at the College of Health and Life Sciences and associate head of school (operations) at the Pharmacy School, has been responsible for the introduction of the SimConverse. She gave a presentation with colleagues about its introduction at the AdvanceHE Artificial Intelligence Symposium 2024: AI for All on 27 February 2024, which focused on using generative AI to build ethical and sustainable student learning journeys.

Ms Lewis said:

“SimConverse has allowed us to ensure students get standardised training that is not possible when working at scale with many placement providers. We use over 100 pharmacy stores for our community pharmacy provision alone. We are fortunate to work with very engaged partners and their input has been vital to ensuring we are building training that will reduce provider-led training and enable students to engage with workplace tasks quickly. We are already seeing an improvement in students’ consultation skills and confidence.

“Building simulation training on this scale has required a large collaboration with our Pharmacy School colleagues and beyond and we are pleased that we could share our journey with others at the AI symposium. Through this and our other streams of professional experience expansion, we have increased professional experience hours by 700% since 2022.”

Professor Anthony Hilton, Aston University pro-vice-chancellor and dean of the College of Health and Life Sciences, said:

“SimConverse embraces cutting-edge AI technology to enhance the learning experience for pharmacy students at Aston University. This innovation aligns seamlessly with the university’s strategic commitment to building a digital enterprise for ubiquitous learning and our dedication to fostering innovation in education.

“By harnessing AI, students have been empowered with a dynamic, personalised learning experience, in line with Aston University’s broader 2030 strategic vision of digital transformation in education. This forward-thinking approach underscores Aston University’s commitment to shaping future-ready healthcare professionals through technology-enabled education.”

Professor Liz Moores, deputy dean of the College of Health and Life Sciences, said:

“Students are able to use this technology anytime and anywhere. An element of SimConverse that is really helpful for skills development is that scenarios can be planned with patients with various different ‘characteristics’ as well as the different scenarios. For example, students will learn (and get feedback on) their ability to take a comprehensive medical history regardless of whether the patient is easier or more difficult to communicate with. Importantly, we have had really positive feedback on this initiative so far from our students.”

Dr Joseph Bush, head of pharmacy, said:

“Our partnership with SimConverse allows our students to develop the essential skills required to provide compassionate, empathetic care in the complex health and social care system, skills which can then be embedded during the greatly expanded portfolio of professional experience activities our students now get to undertake. SimConverse will continue to play an important role in our MPharm programme as we educate the next generation of prescribing-ready pharmacy graduates.”

Notes to editors

About Aston University

For over a century, Aston University’s enduring purpose has been to make our world a better place through education, research and innovation, by enabling our students to succeed in work and life, and by supporting our communities to thrive economically, socially and culturally.

Aston University’s history has been intertwined with the history of Birmingham, a remarkable city that once was the heartland of the Industrial Revolution and the manufacturing powerhouse of the world.

Born out of the First Industrial Revolution, Aston University has a proud and distinct heritage dating back to our formation as the School of Metallurgy in 1875, the first UK College of Technology in 1951, gaining university status by Royal Charter in 1966, and becoming the Guardian University of the Year in 2020.

Building on our outstanding past, we are now defining our place and role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (and beyond) within a rapidly changing world.

For media inquiries in relation to this release, contact Helen Tunnicliffe, Press and Communications Manager, on (+44) 7827 090240 or email: h.tunnicliffe@aston.ac.uk.

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