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For Transplant Candidates, Virtual Classroom Brings Education to the Learner

Online learning

While many people now use online learning courses to earn college degrees or certifications for their jobs, some are using virtual classrooms to prepare for their own life-saving procedures.

To help prepare for a bilateral lung transplant, Penn patient Emil DiPlacido and his family recently took advantage of a new online version of a transplant education session offered by Penn Medicine that allowed him and his family to learn more about and prepare for his upcoming surgery.

Like transplant programs in many health systems, Penn Medicine requires patients’ designated caregivers — which often include family and friends — to complete an education session about the procedure before they can be added to the transplant wait list. Since caregivers are a significant part of a transplant patient’s recovery, getting information about what to expect is vital.

And, until recently, the only option to fulfill the education requirement was to come in to the hospital for an on-site session, which often meant traveling long distances and coordinating busy schedules.

“We’re two hours away — on a good trip,” said DiPlacido, who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a life-threatening inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs.

Recognizing the burden for his patients, Daniel Miller, MHA, BSN, RN, a lung transplant nurse coordinator, developed the virtual class option DiPlacido and his family took. He believes online learning has great potential for such cases, saying that it’s “bringing education to the learner,” instead of the other way around.

“Traveling can be expensive and burdensome for families,” Miller said. “Many caregivers have other responsibilities and are limited in available time.”

Miller began hosting the one-hour online class last October. Participants log in using computers or smartphones to watch and listen together in the virtual classroom, where Miller discusses general information about lung transplants and the entire process. The course covers a variety of topics, such as what patients and their families should do when they receive a call from the transplant coordinator letting them know an organ is available, how to manage post-operative prescriptions, and exercise regimens.

DiPlacido and other patients have universally described the class with one word: “Convenient.” Instead of having to wrangle with the schedules of loved ones, they were able to sit together and take part on their own couch or kitchen table.

But convenience for caregiver training isn’t the only appealing part of the course.

What started as a required class for caregivers has also become an important venue for patients themselves to “review and affirm what they have experienced in the transplant process,” Miller said.

Transplant candidate Joan Sehl, a COPD patient like DiPlacido, took the class with her cousins.

“I am the type of person who needs to know and understand everything as best as possible,” she explained. “I believe it will help me heal as strongly and quickly as possible.”

Miller said he’s seen patients in many different phases of the transplant process in the class. Many use it as a refresher or to ask new questions.

And while it takes place online, Miller’s virtual classroom is set up much like a physical one, allowing for discourse. Multiple people take part at once and interact with each other. Sehl especially appreciated that aspect.

“The online opportunity gives us a chance to meet other people in the transplant process who we might never have known otherwise,” Sehl said. “Their input is appreciated as one cannot possibly think of all the questions or statements involved.”

DiPlacido took the online class with his wife and stepson. Having everyone involved was key, he said.

“When there are more people in the room, it creates more curiosity. More questions get raised,” DiPlacido said. “We had that class and then, when it was over and we disconnected, my support people sat and talked about things. It made us all think a lot more.”

That kind of thoughtful discussion is exactly why the class is important. Miller sees the virtual class as another option, not a replacement for the physical one. But if it allows caregivers and patients to talk more and think harder about the transplant process, it’s accomplishing his goal.

Miller shared the success of the class in a presentation at annual meeting of the North American Transplant Coordinators Organization (NATCO) in August. He explained that since Christian Bermudez, MD, director of Thoracic Transplantation, joined the Penn Medicine team, the lung transplant program has grown exponentially, prompting an examination of how to meet the needs of patients coming from afar. The virtual learning course certainly factors into that.

Additionally, some of those who attended the meeting were intrigued by Miller’s class and discussed expanding the virtual concept to new areas such as nutrition or physical medicine and rehabilitation.

In the meantime, DiPlacido has been added to the list to get his new lungs.

“It could potentially be a while,” he said. “I’m actually a little better off than some of the people who are waiting. So things are going pretty well right now for me, as well as they can.”

But when his time does come, he and his caregivers are ready.

The same goes for Sehl. She’s completing her health maintenance checklist before being listed. And she knows her virtual class will prove vital.

“Any information is critically important to understanding why, how, and what is involved in the transplant process about to engulf your life,” she explained. “The phrase, ‘Knowledge is power’ definitely applies to this.”


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