Drexel Blog: Avatars make the grade for drexel’s online nursing students

Susan Aldridge Appointed Senior Vice President of Drexel University for Online Learning
Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions is well-acquainted with the educational merit of using patient proxies to teach essential clinical skills – having built a high-tech, high-touch simulation laboratory on campus, complete with life-size mannequins and the latest medical equipment.

But this arrangement is far from convenient for the school’s many online nursing students. So to engage their clinical imaginations and sharpen their clinical assessment skills from a distance, the college added a new digital learning experience ™ to its repertoire. Online students engage with an avatar by the name of Tina Jones™ in a simulated environment that is accessible to the students via their personal laptops.

A product of Shadow Health™ – an educational software company – this 29-year-old virtual patient is nothing short of amazing in her ability to respond like any real life patient with a complicated medical history and a distinct personality. That being said, she offers a unique chance for students in Drexel’s online RN-BSN program to safely apply what they know and challenge them to critically think through new patient scenarios within the context of “real-life clinical encounters” that can take many different directions, depending upon the student’s course of action.

And in a field where the stakes are high and the practice is constantly evolving, technology such as this is fast becoming an invaluable learning enhancement, by empowering students to learn about the subject matter at hand, while at the same time learning to be a better nurse. Just ask Drexel nursing students, Meredith Shatoff and Meagan Dekkar, who think of Tina as more than just an avatar.

Although both confess to being exceedingly nervous about using what for them was a wholly new technology, their anxiety quickly subsided once they began to see the many educational advantages of virtual reality. For Meredith, a seasoned nurse, it offered a chance to practice her assessment skills from a more comprehensive perspective.

“Having conducted lots of assessments in my career, I thought I knew enough to do them flawlessly. But as a night shift nurse in a rehab facility, I quickly realized that I had never done a full ‘head to toe’ assessment on any of my patients. For example, I had never had to palpate a liver or a spleen.”

As a result, Meredith recalls missing a few important diagnostic clues during the first couple of encounters. Yet with each subsequent session, she became more proficient. “With real patients, you have one shot to get it right. With Tina, you have as many as you need. So actually performing these assessments on someone (Tina), over and over, made me much more confident in my abilities as a nurse.”

Meagan, a former corpsman in the Navy, also found that working with Tina greatly expanded her treatment perspective, by making her more responsive to the emotional side of patient care. “As a medic, I was taught to focus on the immediate physical issues, as someone’s life or limb usually depended on the here and now. That’s why initially, I thought the goal was getting Tina discharged from the hospital.”

But by getting to know Tina as a “human being,” who needed support and reassurance as much as she needed medical attention, Meagan came to realize that, as she puts it, “nursing isn’t just about treating patients. It’s about equipping them to live healthier and happier lives. All in all, I would say that this experience has inspired me to be a better nurse and a better person because I now know what it means to be a good listener and an effective advocate.”

It is truly amazing to bear witness to nurses returning to school online at Drexel University, identifying with an avatar through a digital learning experience, and transforming their practice when they return to the bedside. For improving patient outcomes is the ultimate goal.