Patient simulation is a powerful teaching tool

This month’s cover story looks at how simulation is evolving in health care. There’s something about simulation that appeals to my English major roots. It’s not the technology that fascinates me, although high-fidelity, interactive mannequins are pretty amazing; it’s the idea of imitating real life.

At its heart, simulation is about storytelling and play-acting, which are powerful teaching tools. We memorize facts and figures for tests, but often forget them later. Assume a role in a scenario — to practice what we know, to see the results of decisions — and learning expands.

A 1999 Institute of Medicine report (“To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health Care System”) recommended simulation as one way to reduce medical errors. The report encouraged colleges and universities to embrace simulation to train nursing students, and called for health care organizations to use it to teach problem-solving skills, crisis management, new procedures or medical devices, and to improve patient care.

Nurse educators and health care administrators have risen to the challenge and are continually finding new uses and better outcomes by utilizing simulation.

“Simulation is still a fairly new way of delivering nursing education, and it is steadily evolving,” said Michael McCannon, RN-BSN, MSN, assistant professor of nursing at Brenau University.

Brenau’s nursing school began with one high-fidelity mannequin used in a single class. Today, simulation is integrated throughout the curricula and instructors routinely send nursing students through “Brenau Hospital,” a simulation center with four patient rooms.

Simulation provides hands-on learning, improves skills, fosters better communication and encourages teamwork — all without endangering real patients. It also reduces fears and builds confidence in nursing students.

At a hospital, clinical instructors can’t be with every student every moment of the day. In a simulated environment, they can observe closely to see strengths and weaknesses, said Janita Mastin, MSN, BSN, nursing instructor and simulation center manager at Brenau University.

Students also experience a broader range of practice. Dressing mannequins, giving them life-like wounds and preparing instructors beforehand makes the simulation as real as possible.

“Preparation is everything in simulation, but when instructors are ready simulation becomes a new and fun way to teach,” Mastin said.

The chief drawback to simulation is the cost. It’s expensive to buy and maintain patient simulators and to train faculty to use them. Not every nursing program can afford it but as research shows positive outcomes, more are finding a way.

“If we’re willing, able and creative, there’s no end to what we can do with simulation,” McCannon said.

WellStar Health System is pushing the envelope with its new simulated work environment lab, built in collaboration with General Motors Corp. to teach Lean technologies and Six Sigma principles to hospital employees. What do health care systems and auto manufacturing have in common? You’d be surprised, said Bethany Robertson, executive director of organizational learning at WellStar.

“We are both interested in quality, efficiency and safety in what we do. Getting diverse views on our problems can lead to innovation,” she said.

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