Simulators help train health students

The mannequins are being used to educate health sciences students.

Naomi Scott

At Metropolitan State University on Tuesday, Bridget Tangney, a University of Minnesota Nursing School graduate and nurse at Regions Hospital, encountered a 37-year-old woman named “Sarah.” The woman had just given birth to a 9-pound baby boy and was not feeling well.

Sarah suffered from postlabor bleeding and complained of cramps, fatigue and hunger.

But Sarah is not a typical patient. She is Metropolitan State University’s human patient simulator, a dummy that can mimic human ailments varying from wheezing to a heart attack.

Patient simulators, in the forms of mannequins and actual people, are becoming more commonly used to educate health sciences students. The University of Minnesota has its own model patient called “SimMan,” as well as a program that recruits actual people to pretend to have various medical conditions.

Jane Miller, the University of Minnesota’s Interprofessional Education and Resource Center director, said that the number of robotic patient simulators worldwide has increased steadily during the last two decades.

“Within 15 years, we’ve gone from 40 (robotic simulators) to thousands,” she said.

SimMan, who came to the University of Minnesota more than a year ago, is used by students from all the Academic Health Center schools, Miller said. Robotic simulators add something new to health sciences students’ education, she said.

“It’s an opportunity to put in a step that hasn’t ever been there for training students,” Miller said. “We make it safe to fail.”

Dr. Cullen Hegarty, a professor in the emergency medicine program at the University of Minnesota and doctor at Regions Hospital, said robotic simulators’ conditions can be reset so a certain case can be repeated many times.

Human simulators can also present more serious symptoms. Health sciences students do not often encounter very sick patients during their early years of education, Hegarty said.

“(A human simulator) can take students and let them work with patients that are more critically ill earlier in their training,” he said.

Academic Health Center students have opportunities to visit the HealthPartners Simulation Center for Patient Safety at Metropolitan State University, which has a human simulator more advanced than SimMan.

Beth LaVelle, coordinator of the simulation center at Metropolitan State University, said its patient simulator can exhale carbon dioxide when it breathes. The simulator also blinks at the same rate humans do.

Because patient simulators are so versatile for replicating different ailments, they are also expensive.

The University of Minnesota’s SimMan cost approximately $40,000, and Metropolitan State University’s patient simulator cost approximately $200,000, Miller said.

Hegarty said the cost is justified because of the knowledge students gain from working with the simulators.

“I feel the expense of the whole project is definitely worth it,” he said. “The benefits for the students definitely outweigh the expense that’s associated with it.”

The Standardized Patient Program at the University of Minnesota also uses simulation to teach health sciences students.

People from various ages and backgrounds present their own health histories and symptoms or fake symptoms to Academic Health Center students.

Anne Woll, the program coordinator, said physical ailments a patient might present include headaches, back pain and hypertension.

More advanced health sciences students learn how to manage social concerns through the standardized patients, such as how to deal with an angry patient or how to deliver bad health news, Woll said.

An advantage of the program is that patients are trained to deliver feedback to students.

“It’s a rare patient that will provide any constructive feedback in a supportive way in an actual setting,” Woll said. “But that’s exactly what we train our standardized patients to do.”

But standardized patients cannot mimic the more complex conditions a robotic simulator can, she said.

Tangney said that although a robotic patient simulator cannot replace the experience gained from caring for actual patients, it is still a valuable learning tool.

“I feel better prepared when I go out on the floor that I would be able to anticipate potential problems,” she said.