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Meet the SIMs

Computer-operated mannequins can tell nursing students "That hurts!" or "I feel dizzy!"

In some professions, practical training for students is crucial but difficult to provide. Nursing students, for example, must perfect the ability to administer dozens of medical procedures with limited practice on real patients.

Students have traditionally learned some skills by practising on each other and on mannequins. But these approaches have drawbacks. You can’t intubate a fellow student and mannequins can’t experience a sudden fall in blood pressure or a racing heartbeat.

Enter the “SIM” family. Earlier this year, U of T’s nursing faculty purchased five “high-fidelity,” computer-operated mannequins – four adults and one baby – that can breathe, talk, and exhibit a heartbeat and pulse.

These “simulation patients” occupy beds in a million-dollar, state-of-the-art clinical lab in the faculty’s new building at 155 College Street. They are used to help train more than 300 nursing undergrads, as well as to provide advanced instruction for master’s students and nurse practitioners.

Nursing students receive more than 1,500 hours of clinical training during their two-year program, but the range of skills they can perform in a hospital is limited by their patients’ actual medical needs. Here, students practice such vital skills as defibrillation before facing a real-life emergency. Cameras and microphones installed on the ceiling record the simulations, which can be played back for instructional purposes. “It’s a real confidence-builder,” says Sandra Devlin-Cop, director of clinical education for the Faculty of Nursing.

Students can test their knowledge, if not their needle-giving skills, on a computer using video simulation software. Hundreds of realistic patient scenarios are available. As the patient’s symptoms change, the computer asks the student to type in the appropriate action and afterward assesses his or her performance.

Prefabricated wounds allow students to practise stitches and dressings. Instructors can also inject fluid into the SIMs’ lungs or mix “blood” in their “urine.” In all, the synthetic patients can replicate 90 per cent of the critical-care conditions nurses will encounter.

Like real patients, the SIMs can talk. During a simulation, instructors can prompt them to say “That hurts!” “I feel dizzy” or, worse, “I feel like I’m going to die.” The SIMs can also cough, retch and tell an overly attentive student to “Go away!”

Because the lab can simulate almost any clinical situation, students trained at the facility will be better prepared for hospital work, says Devlin-Cop. “And, ultimately, that should mean better care for patients,” she says.

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