Virtual Medical Simulation Training for Real-World Impact


Virtual medical simulation technology is changing the way that healthcare professionals prepare for real situations. Simulation is used to reproduce an event before it actually happens. Often, it is used when testing in the real world would be too costly or risky.

Simulation itself isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s been used for centuries in the military. Chess is one of the earliest attempts at wargaming. It’s also commonly used in aviation, space training and testing, the nuclear power industry, and of course, healthcare.

Many healthcare leaders have looked to the aviation industry for inspiration, as it has used simulation to set a high safety standard. The effective use of simulation has helped airline fatalities fall by nearly 45%, even as worldwide flight hours have doubled over the past two decades. Unfortunately, medical errors are the third leading cause of death.

Could healthcare simulations help address this concern and improve the skills and confidence of healthcare practitioners before they meet with real patients?

What is Virtual Medical Simulation?

Healthcare simulation, or medical simulation, is used for education, training, and evaluation in various medical fields.

For example, a nursing simulation would allow a nursing student to practice their injection technique for teaching venipuncture. A pediatric simulation may help a student or provider practice communicating a diagnosis with a family. And a clinical simulation can recreate a clinical environment and unexpected scenarios to help medical students practice thinking on their feet.

Both physical and virtual medical simulation technology is used to train healthcare professionals in cognitive, technical, and behavioral skills, without putting any actual patients at risk.

Types of Healthcare Simulations

There are many kinds of healthcare simulations. Some are done virtually, some use replicas of healthcare or emergency environments, some use manikins, and all help healthcare professionals and students practice and learn valuable skills.

Let’s take a look at a few of the most common types of simulations and how they are used.

EMS Simulator

An EMS simulator depicts an emergency situation or environment. For example, Vassar College EMS (VCEMS) built an ambulance simulator at the correct dimensions to help students practice loading and unloading a stretcher, and working in the tight quarters of an actual ambulance.

Simulated Medications

Simulated medications are practice medications, often with the actual packaging of real oral medications, vials, patches, etc. These are commonly used to practice dosing and administration techniques. Building these skills can help reduce medication errors.

Manikin Simulators

Manikin simulators are life-size patient models that often breathe, have a pulse, and show realistic vital signs. They can be programmed to emulate medical emergencies and conditions to help students practice procedures, including delivering a child. Many manikin simulators can talk, and some computer-based patients can even respond to medications.

Part-Task Simulators

Part-task simulators are not as large and complex as manikin simulators, and are used to practice a specific skill. For example, part-task head simulators are used to practice endotracheal intubation, and a part-task pelvic simulators are used to practice pelvic exams. These usually don’t provide “patient” feedback, but are valuable in helping students practice specific technical skills.

Simulation Recording Systems

A recording of a simulation is actually its own kind of simulation. This recording can be used to debrief participants once a simulation has concluded, or can be used by students who didn’t actually participate but can still gain through observation.

Standardized Patients

A standardized patient is an individual who has been trained to portray the characteristics/symptoms of an actual patient or family member, or a virtual patient programmed to react and respond like an actual patient. They are commonly used to practice communication and other soft skills.

Virtual Reality in Medicine

Virtual reality (VR) is being used in medicine to help students experience emergency situations and explore organs through the use of VR goggles and software. Animations are programmed to depict scenarios, and VR patients respond realistically to learners’ decisions.

Augmented Reality in Medicine

While virtual reality creates a completely manufactured environment, augmented reality (AR) superimposes computer-generated images and sounds onto the real world. For example, AR internal organs are often overlaid onto manikins to help students study and understand anatomy with more context.

Computer-Based Virtual Medical Simulation

Computer-based virtual medical simulations provide the experience of working with a patient exclusively from a computer. In Kognito’s virtual medical simulations, users enter a virtual environment and engage in role-play conversations with emotionally-responsive virtual humans. Virtual coaches also provide feedback so that medical students and professionals can enhance their skills and improve real-life patient conversations.

Advantages of Virtual Medical Simulation Training in Healthcare

What is the value of simulation? Virtual medical simulation training has several advantages:

  • Reduces training variability and increase standardization
  • Helps learners practice and build confidence in a safe setting before working with real patients
  • Can be customized
  • Allows for immediate feedback

Simulation is also an obvious choice in many scenarios for ethical reasons. As medical professionals work to build their skills, simulation training allows them to practice without putting any real people in danger.

Benefits of Virtual Medical Simulation Training for Patient Conversations

Patient-provider communication is an important component of patient-centered care. Communication skills such as motivational interviewing are incredibly valuable for healthcare professionals. Healthcare professionals often have to have difficult conversations with patients and family members, and using evidence-based approaches has the power to improve patient relationships and outcomes.

The problem is that conversations can be challenging to practice with real humans. Even standardized patients who are trained to respond like a real patient can make participants feel uncomfortable, and they may struggle to take it seriously. They are also difficult to completely standardize since each patient actor will be different.

That’s where virtual medical simulation can be extremely effective. Virtual medical simulation in the application of communication training have several advantages:

  • The ability to offer a standardized experience
  • Eliminates the discomfort learners often experience with in-person, role-play scenarios with actors or peers
  • Available 24/7
  • Users don’t experience the fear of making a mistake or feeling judged and can practice skills in a safe environment

Role-play virtual medical simulation experiences are an effective means of practicing screening and brief intervention with patients. Other applications include bringing up health topics like substance use, childhood obesity, opioid use, antibiotics, and more with patients.

Curious about how a virtual medical simulation could help your school or practice? Take a demo of one of our healthcare simulations to experience the power of virtual humans for yourself.

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