After Rounds
Patient Simulation With Mannequin

A Look at Simulated Learning in Medical Education

It may never replace clinical rotations, but simulated learning in medical education is an effective tool that’s continuing to evolve.

I remember — as most medical students do — how nerve-wracking those first clinical experiences were. Walking into a hospital room to meet and greet your first patient is something you never forget. For most of us, the experience is an uncomfortable one, to say the least, because learning about a condition from a book is one thing, but it’s quite another to apply what you’ve learned to a real-life situation.

Recent decades have witnessed the development of simulated learning in medical education, which can give students the chance to gain important clinical skills in a safe, risk-free environment. Here’s a look at simulated learning in medicine and how it can support medical student growth and development.

What Is Simulated Learning in Medical Education?

The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh defines a simulation as “a method or technique that is employed to produce an experience without going through the real event.” Simulation in medical education does just this, offering medical students realistic experiences in a safe and supportive setting that fosters the growth of clinical skills.

According to Medical Science Educator, simulation in medical education can function in two important ways:

  1. Summative: In summative uses, simulation can measure the set of skills and professional competencies that a medical student has learned over time.
  2. Formative: It can also provide students with opportunities to practice and build particular skills.

All this can be done in what the authors term a “supportive environment” where there’s no risk to the patients and where students can safely gain important clinical experience. After the simulation has taken place, there’s often time for students and mentors to reflect on the simulation and discuss areas of strength and weakness.

To learn more about simulated learning in medical education, listen to “High-Fidelity Patient Simulation to Build Mastery” on AudioDigest.

What Does Simulated Learning in Medicine Look Like?

Having become increasingly popular over the past 30 years, simulated learning in medical education can take place in different ways, and each has particular advantages for medical students.

  • Mannequins. This perennially popular method can help students gain experience with invasive procedures such as intubation.
  • Live actors. This method helps simulate real-life clinical situations and is useful when medical students are working on all-important communication skills.
  • Computer simulation software. This technique gives students a virtual clinical experience and has the advantage of convenience and portability, as many of these programs are now available on laptops or mobile phones.

One of the reasons for simulated medical learning’s increased popularity is a growing body of literature that supports its effectiveness as a pedagogical tool. In one randomized controlled trial in the Journal of the Society for Simulation in Healthcare, medical students who received video-assisted debriefing with either trainee errors or simulated errors using trained actors did better on basic life support tests than students who received just the traditional training for these important skills.

Similarly, assessments described in Nursing Education Perspectives showed an increase in the confidence levels of nursing students in applying nursing theory to practice after participating in a simulation and subsequent debriefing session.

Trends in Simulated Medical Training

Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest trends in simulated medical learning is the turn to computer-based technologies. Medical Science Educator notes that new 3-D gaming software that creates highly realistic experiences is now also being applied to healthcare education programs.

More attention is also being given to the role of simulated patients themselves. In a separate study that appeared in the Journal of the Society for Simulation in Healthcare, researchers sought to understand the perspectives of the patient actors in regard to their preparing for and performing in a simulation. The study found that simulation patients sometimes didn’t feel adequately prepared for their roles, which could jeopardize the authenticity of the experience for the medical students. The authors concluded that an increased attention to the perspectives of the “patients” in future studies could lead to more meaningful simulation experiences for medical students.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses-in-training at New Zealand’s Whitireia school have used the vSim® simulated learning program to supplement their studies while social distancing at home. “Early on at Whitireia we realized that interactive and simulation technology was essential for producing health graduates who are work, and emergency, ready,” Carmel Haggerty, Head of Whitireia and WelTec School of Health and Social Services, told Scoop.

While simulated learning will never entirely replace “real life” clinical experiences such as those gained on clinical rotations they’re a useful supplement to traditional medical education techniques. Not only are these simulations risk-free for the patient, but they’re also a way for you to gain confidence in how to apply your hard-won medical knowledge when treating a real patient.

Learn more about how vSim for Nursing gives students an edge with virtual simulation.

Brian Wu, MD, PhD

Brian Wu, MD, PhD

Dr. Brian Wu is an MD/PhD graduate from Keck school of medicine USC and is a current psychiatry resident. He has been freelance writing for over 7 years and has worked with brands such as LA Times, Healthline, Medical News Today, and more. He loves taking medical and health information and making it compelling and interesting for the lay reader.

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