Simulation Labs: The Answer to Nursing Education’s Problem?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job opportunities for registered nurses should rise by 26 percent over the next seven years as baby boomers hit retirement age in larger numbers.

The response to this need seems simple enough: educate, graduate, and license more nurses. But with thousands of qualified applicants being turned away (75,587 in 2010 alone) from entry-level and graduate-level nursing programs, this seemingly easy solution is not working.

Why turn away applicants?

Why are qualified applicants being turned away from nursing programs? The answer may surprise you: a lack of qualified nursing educators and too few clinical sites in which nursing students can hone their skills. Without the physical space for students to practice what they have learned, schools must limit their enrolment to manageable levels.

Turning away candidates is not what schools want to do. The high interest in nursing programs should be a boon for education. So, nursing educators must come up with creative and efficient ways to ensure they can teach more students.

The nursing lab goes high tech

Ask most nurses today about how they learned their basic nursing skills and they will tell you that they learned in a lab at school, before heading out for clinical rotations. Then, they learned more advanced skills during hands-on practical experience, under close supervision.

Today’s nursing labs are much more than a bed and some basic mannequins. The equipment is high-tech and gives the students a more realistic idea of what it is like to perform their tasks on human patients. Such a realistic environment forces students to think on their feet and use critical thinking skills as various scenarios are presented. Mannequins can be adjusted according to the class content. Vital signs can be programmed to change or teachers can control the mannequins’ reactions to certain procedures.

Being told to imagine that a patient needs a central line insertion and being required to care for a high-tech mannequin that simulates human responses to such an insertion are two different things. The first asks the student to picture, imagine, and decide what needs to be done. The second demands that the student react, in real time, according to how the mannequin reacts.

Some types of equipment record the procedures and mannequin responses, allowing instructors to debrief students about the experience, with the relevant information in hand. Students are given objective feedback on their performance, based on the mannequin’s “outcome” rather than on what might be seen as subjective feedback from instructors who are judging the students based on what they can observe. Objective peer-to-peer critiquing and self-critiquing are also possible in this environment.

Failure can be an option

Going out into the clinical field can be stressful for students. They know that mistakes can seriously affect a patient’s outcome. Therefore, failure is not an option. Students may end up being overly cautious and unsure of decisions or they could be cocky and bold – and both approaches might be disastrous. But failure is a reality in life and can be a good learning tool in the right situations.

A student working with a mannequin does not want to make mistakes. However, if the student is going to make a mistake, the lessons learned about what was done, why it was wrong, and the results leaves no one harmed. The student and classmates can take away from such a failure what exactly went wrong and how to prevent that type of error again.

Adapting nursing programs for the new reality

Understanding and accepting that nursing simulation is needed in nursing education is the first step in improving access for people who want to study nursing. The second step requires adapting the programs to allow for this type of learning, teaching the nursing educators how to effectively use the technology, and finding the funds for the equipment. This requires a high level of commitment from nursing school directors and deans.

There is not yet a lot of research on simulation in nursing education, but what research has been done finds that it is an effective way to enhance learning. A study published in 2010 in the International Journal of Nursing Education Scholarship found that simulation practice helped increase student self-confidence and competence in the field. This backed up the findings of a 2006 article published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing and a 2004 article in Critical Care Nurse, which concluded that although simulation cannot replace real-life experience, it can act as a bridge between theory and practice.

With more innovation in nursing education comes a higher level of knowledge and competence in nursing practice. There’s currently a need for nurse educators who can bring transformational leadership to the field, through an understanding of simulation and other new curriculum models.

Is education and training YOUR career calling? American Sentinel’s online MSN degree with a specialization in nursing education is designed for experienced nurses who wish to pursue educator roles within a clinical environment, or to become faculty members at traditional or non-traditional schools of nursing. The specialization emphasizes curriculum development, teaching various learning styles, and teaching via distance technology.

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