By Bryan Gomez
Artificial intelligence (AI) can diagnose some diseases with better accuracy than specialized practitioners, flag significant drug-drug interactions for pharmacists, and—as of just a few months ago—pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam. But, where others might get frightened by rapid growth in the field of AI, Dr. Michael Fulford, CoP’s Assistant Dean for Institutional Effectiveness and Strategic Initiatives, gets excited. “When you pair AI with immersive technology, it represents an evolution in the tools we use to educate and an opportunity to ground what we teach in an enormous amount of applied practice opportunities that would otherwise not be possible,” explained Fulford.
Immersive tech—which encompasses virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality technologies, such as Apple’s recently announced Vision Pro and Meta’s Quest technology—is just one way UGA’s College of Pharmacy is rising to the bold aspirations of its 2025 Strategic Plan, which calls for transformational educational scholarship alongside new, innovative programs that better prepare students to be leaders of the future. “Imagine an immersive classroom lab experience in which you’re working in a simulated ICU alongside a full healthcare team to run a code blue. That’s the sort of rare, high-risk practice experience that we can emulate regularly with immersive tech and AI,” Fulford said.
Similarly, instead of flipping through flashcards nightly to study, students can put on a VR headset and counsel simulated patients to actively practice and assess their drug knowledge whenever they wish. “Right now, it’s just not easy to schedule multiple five-minute practice counseling sessions for over 500 students. With immersive tech, though, that limit disappears, and students can simulate an infinite amount of practice on their own while still getting instantaneous feedback.”
Additionally, the technology can be used by undergraduate and graduate students alike to practice and refine complex laboratory techniques with a wider range of simulated equipment and instrumentation that might not otherwise be available in every on-campus teaching lab. For Dr. Russ Palmer, inaugural Director of the newly formed Office of Instructional Innovation and Research, that ability to seamlessly transport students and researchers to unique laboratory environments is just one of many “new teaching strategies and methods that will improve academic outcomes and address real problems to promote equitable learning.”
While the technology still needs further development before it makes its way into the classroom on a routine basis, Fulford and his colleagues are already inviting immersive medical tech demonstrations to the college. This past year, for example, P2s used immersive tech to simulate some of the challenges of living with dementia, helping them better understand the unique needs of patients with neurocognitive decline. The College, in addition to establishing strategic partnerships with technology enterprises and participating in UGA’s larger Precision One Health data science and AI efforts, also is engaged in a cluster hiring initiative with the College of Veterinary Medicine and College of Education to bring on four translational education research experts to lead immersive tech scholarship, content development, and curriculum design.
Dr. Matthew Schmidt, is the first of these hires, co-appointed by the College of Education. A leading expert in the field and co-editor of the textbook Educational Technology Beyond Content, Dr. Schmidt previously helped lead a $3 million grant at the University of Florida to explore the effectiveness of a self-managed mobile health intervention for adolescents with type 1 diabetes. With extensive research in eHealth solutions and experience bringing human-centered and equitable immersive tech to patients and students alike, he’ll help accelerate the college’s integration of novel technology into the classroom.
“Our vision for immersive tech in pharmacy education is certainly bold, but it’s one that places us at the forefront of innovative teaching and one that the College is making real progress on,” Fulford added, hinting at a project Dr. Eugene Douglass, Assistant Professor in Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences, is leading to enhance students’ visualization of pharmacokinetics by placing them inside the human body. “To utilize complex pharmacokinetic equations, you first must develop an intuition for the physiological systems at play—you need to know what the equations actually represent. 2D representations of physiology can be misleading, but an immersive tech system provides a much more accurate picture of the human body at work,” explained Douglass. “Plus, humans are better able to retain spatial information than complex text-based equations. The tech is great for not just comprehension but also long-term memory consolidation.”
Within the coming semesters, Dr. Douglass hopes that students will be able to see firsthand how drugs are absorbed, distributed, metabolized, and eliminated in the body. His simulations, which are rooted in real, curated clinical datasets of patient-specific pharmacokinetic parameters, will offer students a unique opportunity to build an unparalleled intuition of how drugs exert their effects over time. And when dosing- and calculation-based pharmacokinetic medication errors still occur frequently and put patient well-being at risk, helping students develop a more natural intuition of pharmacokinetics with immersive tech may not just be valuable for long-term knowledge retention—it might just be a life-saving innovation.
Drs. Schmidt, Palmer, Fulford, and Douglass are helping P2 students like Lady Sarfo better understand complex pharmacokinetics with a VR headset, innovative simulations, and forward thinking, UGA-driven ingenuity.