National University in La Jolla, CA has launched a new virtual reality training program that provides nursing students with hands-on clinical experiences in a simulated environment –  without compromising the health and safety of patients or students during the COVID-19 pandemic. The simulated training focuses on serving vulnerable communities, such as the local homeless population. 

“As communities grapple with restrictions required to keep individuals and families safe during the pandemic, health care educators are finding new ways to simulate the on-the-job experiences and complex social and patient interactions that occur every day in health care settings,” said Dr. Gloria McNeal, associate vice president for community affairs in health at National University. “This work is about augmenting our traditional methods of nurse education with innovative ways of providing opportunities for practicum and instruction despite the limitations imposed by the current pandemic.”

The university received a two-year, $200,000 US grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration to create the pilot program designed to increase access to quality health care in underserved communities. The program also received funding from Las Patronas, a local philanthropic organization, to buy 70 virtual reality headsets, and from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors to cover the cost of software and programming. 

The pilot group of nursing students will spend 120 hours acting as avatars in a simulated environment, where they will perform tasks such as listening to lung sounds, assessing wounds, obtaining blood-pressure readings, monitoring oxygen levels, and providing instructions for medical care and follow-up. An instructor virtually monitors each student’s training progress and can customize the patient’s texted responses. National University plans to expand the simulated training to other health care courses in the future.

“At a time when higher education is responding to disruptions in the way we educate and prepare students for the workforce, this is a powerful example of how institutions can help provide continuity of learning,” said Dr. David Andrews, president of National University. “Even in a field as complex as nursing and community health, faculty and academic leaders are finding new way ways to replicate the complex clinical, interpersonal, and decision-making skills required to ensure quality care.”