Introduction: Although on-screen "virtual patients (VPs)" have been around for decades it is only now that they are entering the mainstream, and as such they are new to most of the medical education community. There is significant variety in the form, function, and efficacy of different VPs and there is, therefore, a growing need to clarify and distinguish between them. This article seeks to clarify VP concepts and approaches using a typology of VP designs. Methods: The authors developed a VP design typology based on the literature, a review of existing VP systems, and their personal experience with VPs. This draft framework was refined using a Delphi study involving experts in the field, and was then validated by applying it in the description of different VP designs. Results: Nineteen factors were synthesized around four categories: general (title, description, language, identifier, provenance, and typical study time); educational (educational level, educational modes, coverage, and objectives); instructional design (path type, user modality, media use, narrative use, interactivity use, and feedback use); technical (originating system, format, integration, and dependence). Conclusion: This empirically derived VP design typology provides a common reference point for all those wishing to report on or study VPs.
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