It’s been one year since the COVID-19 outbreak became an official pandemic, however, medical and nursing students at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso have been preparing for months to face the virus upon graduating. They are being taught to recognize the symptoms of COVID-19 and treat patients at the Training and Educational Center for Healthcare Simulation, also known as TECHS.
TECHS is a laboratory space on the TTUHSC El Paso campus that allows students to practice diagnosis and treatment of patients using high-tech manikins, virtual reality simulators, role-playing “standardized patients,” and other methods and equipment designed to simulate real-world medical scenarios.
Since October 2020, COVID-19 scenarios have been incorporated into several areas of training for both Foster School of Medicine and Hunt School of Nursing students. Some of the COVID-19 situations students have encountered include acute-care nursing scenarios and disaster drills.
“In one of the disaster drills, we had a couple of other patients who were presenting with COVID-19, unrelated to the disaster itself,” said TECHS Director Scott Crawford, M.D., FACEP, CHSOS. “One of the things front-line workers have to do during a real disaster is tend to other patients who come into the emergency room. Today, that includes patients affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”
While treatment for COVID-19 patients is mainly supportive, the process for all patients must include checking for the virus. Students must be able to diagnosis patients with symptoms and remain vigilant with patients who may be asymptomatic. Crawford said the goal is for students to do what they can to prevent others from catching the virus, which includes learning the proper way to don, doff and use personal protective equipment.
“The pandemic is going to be a marathon and not a sprint, so we’re incorporating COVID-19 medical education into all of our training for the foreseeable future,” Crawford said. “Our institution, especially with the expertise of those in the simulation center, have a high degree of technical background that can be applied to education.”
The TECHS lab has provided students with the opportunity to get hands-on practice, thanks to its wide range of simulation equipment, including hyper-realistic medical manikins. Dr. Crawford said simulation education is helping to make up for any lost opportunities students may have had in teaching hospitals, which, due to the pandemic, have tightened access to help protect patients, health care workers and support staff.
“The hospitals began limiting what students could do and some stopped allowing us to go in all together. It was a challenging time because we have to learn all of the patient protocols and precautions during a pandemic,” said Michelle Medrano, a Hunt School of Nursing student set to graduate this spring. “The simulation labs gave us the opportunity to learn how to care and treat for COVID-19 patients in an acute setting which many students needed before graduating.”
To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, sizes of classes and group access to the TECHS lab has been reduced. To give students more access, the simulation center has created virtual sessions and scenarios through virtual reality programs. The 3D worlds of virtual reality aren’t the same as touching and holding a patient or a manikin, but it still allows a sense of immersion in a medical experience, Dr. Crawford said.
TTUHSC El Paso is the only health sciences center on the U.S.-Mexico border and serves 108 counties in West Texas that have been historically underserved and understudied.