Technology to Watch: Virtual Simulation

Technology to Watch: Virtual Simulation

As healthcare becomes increasingly more complex, nurses must maintain the competencies necessary to deliver high-quality care. This includes the ability to respond appropriately to new technologies, which may have the potential to change nursing practice and/or nursing education. As patient advocates and frontline caregivers, nurses must ensure that new technologies support and enhance the human element in healthcare.

As it applies to nursing education, virtual simulation can be defined as the use of an avatar (an icon or figure representing a specific person) and a realistic environment (portrayed through three-dimensional graphics) to teach high-level skills through interactive technologies. It is sometimes known as serious gaming, and can be used both in basic nursing education and continuing education of various types.

Nursing has long recognized the value of experiential learning and has used simulation in various forms since the earliest days of the profession, when student nurses practiced on each other and on pieces of fruit. This gave way to “low-fidelity” mannequins that helped new nurses learn simple skills like taking blood pressure and performing CPR. By 2011, according to National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), a whopping 87 percent of nursing schools were using high-fidelity mannequins that interfaced with other technology to provide students with a realistic learning experience.

Advancing technology has once again raised the bar for what is possible. Through virtual simulation, student nurses can practice on a patient who can’t be harmed and can become comfortable with a new skill before trying it on a living, breathing patient. And nursing schools can both mitigate the struggle to find clinical placement sites and extend the reach of their instructors during the current shortage of nurse educators.

Here’s an example of how virtual simulation might work in the educational setting. Every nurse has to learn how to start an IV. This basic task can be taught by a lecture and Power Point slides, a video that goes through all the steps, or a demonstration by a preceptor on a living patient. These are all passive learning models that involve learning by watching. Students could also have a more kinesthetic experience by practicing on a life-sized mannequin or on a model arm designed for this purpose.

With a virtual simulation, however, the student could guide an avatar through all the proper steps, from entering the room and making an introduction, to performing hand hygiene steps, gathering supplies, assessing the insertion site, and placing the needle. The patient room is a virtual world that contains all the objects that would be found in a real hospital environment, and the objects are interactive, meaning they can be used by the avatar. The nurse avatar is controlled by the student through a touchscreen or game controller device, while the patient avatar can either be controlled by an instructor or by a software program. The avatars “see” each other in the virtual world and interact through typed chat or voice. In this example, the patient might complain of discomfort while the IV is being started, and the nurse would have to respond appropriately. Within the virtual world, all real-world rules about distance, gravity, and movement apply. This authenticity allows students to become fully immersed in the environment and have an active learning experience.

Virtual simulation can also be used by experienced nurses as part of continuing education or in-house training requirements. For example, consider new efforts to prevent hospital-acquired infections, or evolving evidence-based practices. Sometimes nurses have to unlearn what they were originally taught and acquire new skills. Other applications for more seasoned clinicians include:

  • Clinical decision making skills. In high-risk patient encounters, the consequences of decisions are critical. Participants could test out different clinical reasoning pathways, find out firsthand what the outcomes are, and learn from the consequences of their actions.
  • Disaster preparedness and response. Large scale disasters are difficult and costly to simulate in real life, but it is essential to prepare for them.
  • Interdisciplinary collaboration. In a virtual world, physicians, nurses, and other providers can practice communication and teamwork skills.
  • Chronic disease management. Nurses who work with diabetic patients, for example, can use a time-lapse simulation to see the outcomes of their interventions over time.

Nurse educators will have to prepare for the challenges associated with applying an emerging technology effectively, in order to assure that nurses have the competencies they need. If you’re interested in a career in nursing education, please consider American Sentinel’s online nursing degree programs. Our MSN in Nursing Education is designed for experienced nurses wanting to pursue educator roles within a clinical environment or become faculty members at traditional or non-traditional schools of nursing.

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