This week, medical professionals from around the state met to discuss a surprising topic – simulated patients. More and more medical and nursing schools are relying on high-tech mannequins to teach valuable lessons, before students actually lay hands on humans.
Noelle is a perpetually pregnant mannequin who lives at the University of Virginia’s School of Nursing. She has a heartbeat and blood pressure, eyes that open and close, joints at the hip, knee and ankle, a womb, a baby who’s been delivered thousands of times – and thanks to various computer programs, she talks.
“My back is killing me. I’m so weak. Please, I need something for the pain! “
Noelle is one of seven high-tech mannequins at UVA. She cost $60,000. A male model, who sweats, has seizures and is wireless, cost $90,000. But the lab’s associate director Linda Peffley-Firer says it’s a great investment.
“Yes – education is costly, but you know what? So are lives, so we practice here.”
And student Susan Murphy says practice is the key to skillful care.
“You do things over and over and over again, and then it becomes more second nature so that when we get into the hospital with real patients, we don’t have to think so much about, ‘Am I holding the needle right,’ or, ‘Is the blood pressure cuff the right size?’ Everything that you thought was a simple, like one-step process actually has 25 steps you didn’t notice them doing.”
Lab Coordinator Reba Moyer-Childress adds that student learn to work as a team, since many specialists may be involved in caring for patients.
“How do we make sure that they are where we want them to be? How do we make sure that that mom who’s in distress gets to the OR in a timely fashion? How will the anesthesiologist and the respiratory therapist? I mean Noelle has had sometimes 30 people with her in the OR, trying to help save her baby and her life.”
“Please help me. One more push. One more push. (yells) Got a head. You’re almost there. Shoulders now. She’s here. You’ve got a baby girl!”
Each simulated medical situation is observed from a control room – and recorded.
There’s a camera at each station, so students can record themselves and go back and review it on their own and improve their performance.”
After each session, students sit with their professors to discuss what went right, what went wrong and what could be done differently. In addition to technical skills, student Susan Murphy says she’s learned how to talk with patients.
“It might be uncomfortable to feel like you’re talking to a mannequin, but it also might be uncomfortable to be talking to a stranger in the hospital”.
In some cases, students practice on each other – but they’re mostly young and healthy, so Murphy says it’s not possible to learn most of what a nurse needs to know. Even in the hospital, it might take years to encounter certain rare conditions. Mannequins, on the other hand, can be programmed to suffer a range of diseases, with appropriate symptoms and sounds.
“Then you can say, ‘Oh that’s what crackles for pneumonia sound like, or this is what wheezing is like in an asthma patient.”
Noelle’s baby, for example, may suffer respiratory distress – or something far less worrisome, a case of the hiccups.
In addition to six adult simulators and a baby, the lab has dozens of high-tech body parts on which students can practice inserting tubes and catheters, taking blood pressure and giving injections – a giant leap forward from the days when oranges were used to train nurses with needles.