First-year medical students at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix recently had the opportunity to put their knowledge to the test in the Arizona Center for Simulation and Experiential Learning, the "simulation lab" on the downtown campus that gives students real-life medical experience by "treating" mechanically controlled mannequins.
These "patients" can do almost everything humans do – they breathe, sweat and even bleed. From a control center, a facilitator can have the mannequin talk to the students and tell them what's wrong or "what hurts."
The simulation lab is an integral step in preparing students for the real challenges that come with medicine. During a recent exercise, the first-year students worked together as an emergency medical team designed to help them deal with the communication challenges that can come among nurses, radiologists and doctors, in the critical care setting. The case the students were working on involved a woman who had been stung by a bee and went into anaphylactic shock. The lab was set up to imitate a hospital emergency department.
"These are the kinds of things I was doing during my residency in emergency medicine," said Dr. Mark Solem, an emergency medicine physician. "You have to be ready to change as fast as the patient makes a change."
Located in the new Health Sciences Education Building, the simulation center is a new, state-of-the-art endeavor that combines technology with health-care-focused education. Students get to learn the difficulties faced every day in the medical world, no matter how much experience they have. The simulation lab can be set up to encompass a wide variety of situations, training the students for the world they will soon enter in real patient care.
"I am very excited about the tremendous potential for teaching and learning this simulation center offers," said Dr. Jennifer Hartmark-Hill, director of the capstones course at the UA College of Medicine-Phoenix. Hartmark-Hill said the lab can be set up to imitate a surgical room, a delivery room or an ordinary hospital room. "I think what that's going to do is have them walk away that much more invigorated to learn and to be prepared the next time they're in the same scenario."
Dr. Elaine Niggemann, director of the cardio-pulmonary-renal block at the UA College of Medicine-Phoenix, said the simulation lab was a chance for students to practice what they had been discovering after four weeks in the block and three weeks of physiology lectures.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for them to come in and apply what they have been learning," she said.
The simulation center has five different rooms in all, two of which can be set up as emergency rooms, one is a surgical room, the fourth is a regular hospital room set-up and the fifth is geared toward obstetric care. One of the emergency department rooms is pediatric-focused, with a child and a baby mannequin.
"The students have all the same tools that they would see in that environment," said Jim Rinehart, center manager. "We wish we had this when we went through school."
Rinehart stressed the many perks of having the simulation center available.
"For the students to learn patient care as well as the communication part and teamwork," he said. "It makes our students more confident. They can make mistakes here without worry that they're going to hurt or harm a patient."
Aaron Klassen was one of the first-year medical students in the recent ER exercise. He said the students were given basic information as would have been provided by the paramedics and not much else.
"It was a matter of piecing together what little we knew about that diagnosis," he said. "There's a sense of urgency when we have a mannequin in front of us."
Klassen will take away many things from the experience.
"The mannequin was very realistic; we could listen to breath sounds and heartbeats," he said. "I didn't expect them to be able to simulate something like edema in the legs."
Christie Moss, a fellow first-year, said the lab offered a new form of excitement that the students hadn't seen before.
"I was trying to figure out what we were doing, and I was getting excited because it was more than I anticipated we were going to do," she said. "I didn't realize we were going to have an emergency room patient in crisis."
Moss played the role of the intern on the emergency medical team in the exercise.
"The atmosphere was a little bit tense, but we were still thinking through things," she said. "There was a lot of thinking and problem-solving with my colleagues throughout."
"To have that experience of putting your stethoscope on the patient, and then looking at the heart rate monitor and thinking about what drug you just administered while your heart is racing and your patient's heart is racing, it's an interesting experience."
"You certainly don't forget it."
The simulation center provides a valuable and unprecedented way for the UA College of Medicine-Phoenix to distinguish both itself and its students. The technology and real-time interaction gives students the necessary tools they will need during their journey as a medical professional.
"This is the future of health care," Hartmark-Hill said. "They're going to need to do team-based care with all the implicit communication and sharing of medical knowledge."