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Noelle is a VitalSim mannequin.

They're No Dummies

November 2005

by Natalie Gutierrez

Noelle, 32, lies in her hospital bed surrounded by nurses who diligently monitor her vital signs and prepare her for the birth of her first child. She lets out a faint moan as her labor pains intensify. Noelle’s chart indicates she has been diagnosed with gestational diabetes and high blood pressure. She and her baby will have to be monitored carefully to ensure a safe and successful delivery.

This scenario happens hundreds of times at hospitals across the nation. But what makes this particular situation unusual is that Noelle isn’t a real person - she’s a mannequin. And the nurses in the room aren’t actual nurses - they’re Health Science Center nursing students.

Noelle and her newborn are among the newest members of a family of lifelike mannequins that live in clinical skills labs at the Health Science Center. Faculty members say the mannequins add a whole new dimension to clinical skills training at the Health Science Center.

In addition to Noelle, the School of Nursing owns 21 VitalSim mannequins and one SimMan, which faculty members say is the granddaddy of the group. They also plan to add Nursing Kid, a replica of an 8- to 10-year-old child, to their dynasty of dummies.

But these dummies aren’t dimwitted at all. They come with sophisticated software that allows them to breathe, talk, burp, cough or sneeze, and in Noelle’s case, have a baby. The mannequins also have skin that looks and feels authentic, so students can practice drawing blood, administering an IV or tending to a wound.

Melissa Gonzalez, R.N., M.S.N., director of the Clinical Skills Lab in the School of Nursing, said the mannequins are excellent tools for training students.

"Teaching students clinical skills has always been a top priority at the Health Science Center," Gonzalez said. "These new mannequins keep us on the cutting edge of training technology. The software and mannequins allow us to create a multitude of real-life patient scenarios. We are very excited about our new equipment and are eager to incorporate it into our teaching arsenal."

Specialized software allows faculty to create patient scenarios and monitor how students care for SimMan (above), the patient.
The Clinical Skills Lab in the School of Nursing underwent renovations that were completed in 2001. The facility features one large classroom, four exam rooms and three demonstration units. Approximately 400 graduate and undergraduate nursing students are trained there each semester. They learn how to insert Foley catheters and nasogastric tubes, how to care for and monitor patients with chest tubes, how to suction a tracheostomy, how to administer medications, how to draw blood, and how to perform numerous other skills vital to the nursing profession.

"We continue to upgrade resources in the lab on a regular basis so our students have access to the latest technology and equipment," Gonzalez said. "We highly encourage our students to use the lab to practice the skills many times in order to master them. Our job as instructors is to help them succeed and become confident and proficient nurses."

On the other side of campus, medical students prepare for their encounters with patients in the Medical School’s new Clinical Skills Center. The patients aren’t actual patients, but unlike Noelle they are real people, with real lives. These individuals become patients, standardized to portray people with illnesses or problems. They meet with medical students on a one-on-one basis, just as if they were real patients, in the Clinical Skills Center. The encounters take place in state-of-the-art exam rooms, equivalent to those at doctors’ offices or at some of the best hospitals in town.

The Clinical Skills Center, which began operation in March 2005, is one of the largest centers of its kind in the nation. The 15,000-square-foot facility features 20 standardized patient exam rooms. Each 120-square-foot room is equipped with standard medical equipment and facilities as well as a computer workstation, concealed microphones and video cameras, an overhead paging system and a one-way mirror. The observation equipment allows faculty members to monitor live and/or digitally record the encounters so they can evaluate the students’ performance. The standardized patients also evaluate the students and provide them with feedback. When encounters are recorded, students can evaluate themselves. A remote monitoring station also allows groups of students to view the encounters live from a separate classroom or from a remote location at the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) in Harlingen. Laptop computer desks are installed on the walls outside each exam room so that students can access standardized patient information and perform Web-based evaluations and tests based on their experiences.

Diane Ferguson, R.N., B.S.N., director of the Medical School’s Clinical Skills Center, said the Health Science Center is ahead of other universities in the nation when it comes to integrating video, audio and Web-based technology to train, test and evaluate students’ clinical skills.

"The Clinical Skills Center combines state-of-the-art technology with good old-fashioned human-to-human contact to provide an exceptional learning environment for the students," Ferguson said. "We currently have 600 medical students who train here each year. We plan to increase the number of medical student activities over the next two years to include all four classes, and to open the center to graduate medical students as well as nursing, allied health, dental and continuing medical education students in the near future."

Jose Quiroz, a second-year medical student, said his experience at the center is unlike anything he can get from a textbook.

"The center helps me learn how to more effectively interact with all kinds of people," he said. "I’m learning to be more comfortable with different patients who have different situations and illnesses. I learn how to listen and understand better. The training gives me confidence that I’ll be well prepared to provide the best care to actual patients in the future."

With top-notch faculty members, state-of-the-art clinical skills centers, technology and a multitude of resources, the Health Science Center is quickly becoming one of the nation’s leading universities for the training of future health care providers.


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