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Meet VirtaMed: “All the technology in the world is useless if we don’t know what to do with it”

September 26, 2017

Our Education and Training Manager Candice Cuvelier never knows what awaits her in a new classroom, and that’s what makes teaching fun. This human element is necessary if we ever want to see high tech simulation become the go-to method for training medical skills.

Candice taught her first PhD class at the age of five. Her father, a professor of sociology, often took Candice along for his lectures, and eventually she got to teach a group of aspiring researchers how to draw bunnies on the chalk board. Candice followed in her father’s footsteps by getting a Bachelor’s degree in sociology, and in 2006 she moved from Texas to Switzerland to experience something new. Once in the Old Continent, Candice learned German and studied how to implement learning programs in organizations for her Master’s degree. At the time, Candice had no idea how relevant this academic focus would turn out to be in her career.

“We can change surgical training by helping people interface with technology”

In 2012, a few years into the job market, Candice had two work offers to choose from: she could either support the head of the legal department in a large bank or take over a plethora of administrative tasks at VirtaMed. “What reflects me the most, wearing a suit every day and running after a high-powered attorney, or running after a CEO of a tech startup?” The decision was easy.

VirtaMed was strongly focused on creating the most advanced technology and the most realistic simulation—it was an engineering company through and through. This focus helped VirtaMed gain credibility in the medical simulation market. Candice found her place in the group easily enough, though, as her secret past featured random support jobs in high school as an A+-certified technician. She was fluent in geek as well as in German.

However, both the company and the market matured, and other needs emerged. VirtaMed could do more, and Candice was the right person with the right background and the right attitude to drive the idea forward. However intuitive the user interface may be, having a top-notch simulator will do the customer no good if they don’t know how to leverage it. VirtaMed would need to be able to offer train-the-trainer services to go with the simulators if the company really wanted to change the way surgical training is done.

With her past work in administration and sales support, Candice knew the VirtaMed sales team well. More importantly, she knew all the customers, and that made her trustworthy in the eyes of the sales team. “If you’re not sensitive to the history and background of each client, sales people might not feel comfortable letting you between them and their hard-earned account”, Candice explains.

“I’m nervous every time I get in front of a group”

VirtaMed offers train-the-trainer education to customers that can be broadly categorized into three groups: hospitals and training centers, medical device industry, and sales partners. Hospital training is about showing medical educators how to get the most out of their simulators; the industry focus is often on teaching essential medical concepts and mechanisms to sales representatives that target doctors. The goal of sales partner training is to teach both the simulator and the method of selling a VirtaMed simulator. Candice has her finger prints on all different types of education at VirtaMed, not to forget internal training.

Candice counts herself lucky, for sociologists rarely get to work in a successful private company in their actual field of study. As the random pieces of her background have fallen into place, Candice feels she had gained the perspective to be able to help others. “I really enjoy seeing people succeed, and I enjoy helping somebody find what they love to do.”

One thing that Candice knows from theory and experience alike is that adult learning is different from learning as a kid. In school, children are allowed and even expected to make mistakes and learn from them, whereas adults often have higher pressures and smaller margins for error. Adults might fear that failing an exam will get their pay docked, or that their performance review will suffer from poor training program results. A large part of the learning experience depends on the environment, and you never really know the dynamics of any community before you walk into the room and start engaging. “I'm nervous every time I get in front of a group”, Candice confesses. “But once the first two words come out of my mouth, I’m okay.”

Successful teaching takes some innate people skills, Candice says but continues that an open attitude will get you far. A good trainer knows that the group they’re about to meet might be cheerful because they got the afternoon off, or they might be frustrated because they were pulled away from the field crunching to meet that looming sales target. A teacher must find ways to motivate all these people, and that gets easier the more often they are thrown into the fire.

Candice tries to learn everything she can about the group she is about to train, but sometimes the memo just doesn’t get there in time. Once she carried out an entire sales force training session, explaining the basic medical concepts and the benefits of the simulated procedures to an audience with—allegedly—no medical background. After the session, one of the participants introduced himself as a surgeon and sincerely thanked Candice for having taught him something new in his own field.

“We're teaching the generation that will call the shots in 10–20 years”

Medical simulation will not become mainstream without the corresponding training. Yet even that is not enough: Candice believes that a full-scale adoption of novel training methods will require top-down regulation and mandates. Some countries have already successfully tested directing resident hours away from practicing on patients and towards simulated training, Candice points, hoping that many more will join the crowd.

Spreading the gospel of simulation training is also a question of time. “We’re now teaching the younger generation, and in 10–20 years these people will be sitting in the certification boards and health ministries.” Simulation will be a no-brainer for this generation.

Would you like to know more?

Ted Talk: Peter Weinstock 
"This is just a nice Ted talk about how practice, and really practicing as a surgical team can be really great. So it merges simulation, tech and the human factor.”

Dawe et al. “Systematic review of skills transfer after surgical simulation-based training” British Journal of Surgery 2014
"A paper on how surgical skills are transferred during simulation based training. It might be interesting for some to see what they focus on as points."

Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath
"This book really helped me understand what my skillset was, when I myself could not identify it. I would recommend it to anybody who doesn’t feel comfortable in their own skin at work or would like to learn more explicitly what they do well."  
"Just a few little sociology things in case people are curious as to what sociologists do, and what they study."