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UMSL hopes high-tech simulation mannequins will mean more nursing grads

Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
Jen Vines, a nursing professor and UMSL's director of simulation, controls mannequins in a new classroom by pressing buttons and speaking into a microphone.

The University of Missouri–St. Louis is betting that a new high-tech training lab for future nurses will help meet the state’s demand for more health care workers.

The $7 million project expands the school’s simulation center, where nursing students use high-tech robotic mannequins and computers to learn skills and prepare for human patients. The mannequins in the lab can bleed, urinate and even talk.

“The gold standard for nursing education is the combination of physical and simulation education,” said Annie Vandermause, the school’s dean of nursing. “It offers students time to stop and think and critique and prepare and really explore all of the facets of the situation that they can’t necessarily do in an in-person setting.”

One-fourth of the cost of the project, which more than doubles the number of current simulation rooms and updates learning mannequins, came from the state’s MoExcels workforce development program.

UMSL officials estimate 11% of nursing positions in the St. Louis area are unfilled. That number is expected to rise as older nurses age out of the profession. The school expects the simulation lab will increase the number of nursing graduates by 20% and shift about one-third of learning from clinical settings to simulations.

Nursing students near the end of their training attend to human patients in clinics and hospitals.

But learning on human patients can be risky and leaves little room for mistakes. The coronavirus pandemic also has made in-person learning in health care even more difficult, said Jen Vines, an UMSL professor and director of nursing simulation.

“This allows us opportunities in a safe arena,” Vines said. “Nobody’s going to sue us, nobody’s going to die, nobody’s going to get hurt. And then we can learn and grow from those opportunities.”

August Jennewein
University of Missouri - St. Louis
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson visits the UMSL Nursing Simulation Laboratories on Tuesday. The school is expanding the lab with the help of state workforce development funds.

On Tuesday, Vines sat in front of a large computer monitor and panel down the hall from a simulation room, manipulating creepily lifelike mannequins of a mother and newborn baby in another classroom.

She could see the nursing students working on the simulation through videos that broadcast images of the classroom back to her. Vines clicked on buttons with a mouse, making the patients moan in pain during a simulation of a postnatal hemorrhage.

“Kind of like a DJ,” she said.

Another monitor showed the heartbeats and blood pressure of the mother and baby.

Students also will learn in simulations that aren’t focused on the lifelike mannequins, Vandermause said. They use both “dormant” mannequins similar to those used in first aid courses and “lower-fidelity” mannequins that aren’t as high-tech as the new robots. Sometimes real people are used in simulations.

One simulation tracks a patient as she tries to navigate access to health insurance, Vandermaus said.

The simulations instill “a sense of self and duty to the patient,” nursing student Goodness Ohia Obioha said.

“Even if you don’t get to perform a whole lot of skills on a client before I graduate, I would have had the opportunity to do it numerous times in simulation practice,” she said.

When a non-student looks at one of the simulation rooms, they just see a mannequin on a bed, Ohia Obioha said. But nursing students learn to see something different.

“The idea behind it is the mannequin is real, the diagnosis is real, the pain is real, and I’m the nurse to assist in this very real situation,” she said.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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