Getting hands-on nursing practice without injuring a patient has long been a dilemma in health care education. At Northampton Community College, new technology is allowing students to get real-world experience without the real-life consequences.
For years, the college has been using patient simulators – mannequins that stand in for human patients – in its nursing program. But the newest addition to its “sim lab,” purchased last year for $75,000, is special – a tetherless mannequin that is as close to being human as a dummy can get.
“We could put him in the food court and make him have a heart attack if we wanted to,” said Mary Jean Osborne, director of nursing programs at NCC. “It’s completely remote-controlled.”
The SimMan Essential is helping NCC’s nursing students learn and practice important skills – and make mistakes – without hurting anyone. “We can simulate very high-risk situations in a safe environment,” Osborne said.
The mannequin has a heartbeat and blood pressure, pupils that dilate and a stomach that can be filled with “content” for nasogastric tube insertion practice. Students can insert IVs, take vital signs, give cardiopulmonary resuscitation and even catheterize their “patient.”
Its vital signs are displayed on a screen, just like in a hospital. If critical mistakes are made, the patient may even “die.”
“It’s the best place to make a mistake,” said student Donna Martin. Student Mike Blawn agreed. “It allows you to make a mistake without hurting someone,” he said. “And, as a nurse, you learn from your mistakes and never forget them.”
Martin and Blawn had just finished up in the sim lab, where they assessed a “patient” who was in severe respiratory distress. The mannequin talks to the students, telling them where it hurts or what other symptoms it’s having. Pulse oximeters are put in place and breath sounds and heartbeat are listened to with stethoscopes.
Andrea Corrado, assistant professor of nursing, stands outside the room and behind one-way glass, observing and controlling the symptoms. She can speak as the mannequin via a wireless headset. The scenario is videotaped, and afterward students and instructor watch the video in a debriefing, discussing what went right or wrong.
Although the mannequin can be programmed by instructors, it comes with 30 pre-programmed scenarios that will cause the patient to exhibit symptoms of things such as bone fractures, allergic reactions, pancreatic inflammation, sickle cell anemia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
The patient simulator gives students an opportunity to participate in the situation. Instead of stepping back to let professionals take over when an emergency occurs, as a student would do during clinicals with a live patient, the student remains in charge – thanks to the mannequin.
“This builds students’ confidence and allows them to practice critical-thinking skills – and to see the consequences of not thinking,” Osborne said.