Robo-patients allow McMaster students to practise until perfect

By Sue Johnston, December 1, 2005

    Greg Peachey, left, assistant dean, Continuing Health Education Program, and Norm Buckley, chair of the Department of Anesthesia, demonstrate how medical students can practice their skills on a computerized mannequin in the anesthesia simulator lab training centre that was officially opened Wednesday. Photo credit: Rob Tatlock
Robotic, simulated patients are allowing students in the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine to practise clinical skills before they reach human patients.

A simulator lab training centre set up by the anesthesia department allows students to experience the challenges of working in a hospital operating room in a setting that looks and functions as close as possible to the real thing. An official opening of the lab was held on Wednesday.

In a room on the first floor of the McMaster University Health Sciences Centre, the new training lab features computer-operated medical equipment hooked up to what appears to be a real patient on an operating room table. In fact, the patient is a $100,000 computerized, human-like robot that mimics bodily functions such as breathing, heartbeat, swelling and other changes in human conditions that might be experienced by an actual patient.

Medical students learn how to properly administer anesthesia and monitor the patient and medical equipment. A control room in the lab allows the instructor to watch the students and manipulate the mannequin's responses to mimic what might occur in a real-life situation. The patient's heart rate or breathing can change, and the throat or tongue can swell, requiring the students to think on their feet and make the necessary adjustments.

The use of simulation technology at McMaster will expand significantly in coming months, as the School of Nursing uses government funding to establish another simulation lab, complete with a family of robo-patients. The lab will provide a virtual hospital experience in which nursing students can practise assessment and treatment, and apply their critical, problem-solving skills using anatomically-correct, computerized mannequins that can speak and simulate different medical conditions. It will be utilized by students of the joint McMaster-Mohawk-Conestoga nursing program, and eventually expand to offer interprofessional training for students in a variety of health care training programs.

Norm Buckley, chair of McMaster's anesthesia department, said the anesthesia simulator lab ensures students are receiving the most advanced training possible.

"This simulator lab allows the students to be better prepared before heading into an operating room for clerkship," he said. "The students are more confident and skilled, they understand more of what the clinical instructors are showing them, and they are able to assimilate more of what they are seeing and doing."

The anesthesia lab has been in use for several months, and earning positive reviews from both students and instructors. The department held a half-day symposium on Wednesday with speakers from the University of Texas, University of Toronto and McMaster discussing simulation training and its future. It was followed by the opening of the simulation lab and the department's first ever alumni dinner. Guests included former chairs of the department, which was established in 1971.

The development and use of medical simulation mannequins is being supported by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, which recently announced $1.2 million for McMaster's School of Nursing and Mohawk College for state-of-the-art computerized simulation equipment. In addition to the lab planned in the School of Nursing, a clinical simulation lab is also being set up at the Mohawk-McMaster Institute for Applied Health.

Catherine Tompkins, associate dean of McMaster's School of Nursing, said simulation training is another example of the University's commitment to excellence in educating health care students.

"In a continually changing health care environment, training of future health care professionals is a complex undertaking that requires innovative thinking and creative use of new and available resources," she said.

"Simulation technology represents the wave of the future, and will provide our students with the state-of-the-art tools necessary to further their training and prepare them as the leaders in our future health care environment."