Not Just for Video Games: Virtual Reality Used to Train Hunt School of Nursing Students for Real-World Emergencies

Not Just for Video Games: Virtual Reality Used to Train Hunt School of Nursing Students for Real-World Emergencies

Using virtual reality technology in nursing schools to practice treating patients was a dream a quarter-century ago and, quite frankly, science fiction before that. 

But in 2022, it’s becoming a practical tool at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso. This spring, Hunt School of Nursing students have begun training using Oculus headsets that put them in a VR hospital room with a patient.

In the March 31 exercise at the university’s Training and Educational Center for Healthcare Simulation (TECHS), the virtual patient began experiencing heart failure during a checkup, requiring the student to provide emergency care. The students, enrolled in the Hunt School of Nursing’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, followed chart instructions and performed certain steps under a time limit before completing their post-visit documentation. 

The Oculus system allows instructors to observe the student’s point of view through a computer monitor. Hand-held controllers also provide feedback to the student, such as a vibration while checking a patient’s pulse.

Normally, these exercises would involve hyper-realistic manikins that simulate breathing and a heartbeat, while remaining motionless. During a VR training, nothing physical is present but the virtual patient can talk, show emotion and move as per the students’ instructions.

“Having a regular manikin simulation has been great, but seeing a patient’s status and reaction changing before you, you can’t do that without virtual reality,” said nursing instructor Meghan LaMont, M.S.N., R.N. “With the headset on, students see the patient’s face changing. They can see a look of concern as the patient turns pale. It should trigger the nurse to look at the chart and take the right steps to save the patient.”

In preparing for the course, LaMont adapted current virtual training programs to make them more realistic for nurses. Her goal is to present students with as many real-life scenarios as possible before they graduate. LaMont said these scenarios trigger an emotional response and as nurses, they must learn how to react appropriately.

“It can be intimidating in a real-world setting if you haven’t experienced it. Hopefully, this simulates it enough, so when they have to do it for real, the intimidation is gone,” LaMont said. “I’m excited to see where this will take our students because I do believe virtual reality is the next step in health care education. The future really can be limitless.”

The Oculus system allows instructors to observe the student’s point of view through a computer monitor. Hand-held controllers also provide feedback to the student, such as a vibration while checking a patient’s pulse. Nursing students have responded to the course with enthusiasm.

“It’s the closest we get to the clinical setting without actually being there,” said student Christian Santibanez. “The VR system works well. We can move the patient and get their vitals as we would with a real-life patient. It’s pretty life-like.” 

During a VR training, nothing physical is present but the virtual patient can talk, show emotion and move as per the students’ instructions.

The immersive experience also allows the students to build confidence. Andres Ortega said even though he knows he’s being watched, he feels like he’s in control.

“You’re the one in the room,” Ortega said. “To a certain extent, you get to run your own room and prioritize what needs to be done. You have to determine the patient’s needs and act quickly to save them.”

Virtual reality is just one way TECHS provides students with hands-on training. Students practice diagnosis and treatment of patients with a wide range of simulation equipment, including lifelike medical manikins, role-playing “standardized patients,” and other methods and equipment designed to simulate real-world medical scenarios.

TECHS Executive Director Scott Crawford, M.D., FACEP, FSSH, said the software the VR course uses is applicable to both nursing and medical students. TECHS has had it for two years and plans to expand its capabilities in the future. 

“The Oculus headset has been around since 2015, but they have been more accessible and more mainstream over the past two years,” Dr. Crawford said. “We’ve used this type of training on a small scale, but this is the first full-class implementation we’ve done with custom scenarios.”

The technology is another way to provide simulated clinical exposure to first-year students, as well as pre-medical or high school students interested in medical or nursing school. Dr. Crawford is even looking at the possibility of augmented reality, which would layer computerized simulations over real-life backgrounds.

This year, TTUHSC El Paso is celebrating the Hunt School of Nursing’s 10-year anniversary and its contributions to higher education and health care in the Paso del Norte area. The school’s mission is to address the critical shortage of nurses in the Borderplex and surrounding regions.

Before the establishment of the Hunt School of Nursing, El Paso County faced a 40% shortage of nurses when compared to the national average. Since opening, the Hunt School of Nursing has educated more than 1,000 nursing students, with nearly 90% staying in the region. That has increased the number of registered nurses in the county by 45%.