The School of Health Sciences celebrates the role of simulation in improving healthcare delivery

The inaugural Healthcare Simulation Week, sponsored by the Society for Simulation in Healthcare and held Sept. 11-14, celebrates global professionals who use simulation to improve the safety, effectiveness, and efficiency of healthcare delivery.

Students in the Elon University School of Health Sciences come face to face with clients and simulated patients almost from day one.

Whether they are delivering Noel, a medical mannequin’s, baby, responding to a pulmonary embolism in an intensive care “patient”, or observing mobility milestones while playing “Simon Says” with a toddler, graduate students in physical therapy and physician assistant studies have repeated opportunities to grow their clinical skills using simulations throughout their classroom education at Elon.

“Simulations are about giving our students a safe learning experience—safe to take risks and to make mistakes,” says Client & Standardized Patient Program Director Nita Skillman.

During the week of Sept. 11-14, the school will join others in the health care world in celebrating the role that simulation plays in helping to improve the safety, effectiveness, and efficiency of healthcare delivery. Healthcare Simulation Week is sponsored by the Society for Healthcare Simulation.

Skillman came to Elon in 2012 charged with the task of creating the Client & Standardized Patient Program to jointly serve the Physician Assistant Studies and Doctor of Physical Therapy graduate programs. Since then, the program has flourished.

Last year alone, the Client & Standardized Patient Program logged about 90 hours of client participation and nearly 1,000 hours of standardized patient encounters. Standardized patients are actors trained to portray specific patient scenarios. With in-depth preparation, these actors are able to provide consistent experiences for all students across the board as well as individualized feedback making encounters ideal for both clinical skill practice for students and faculty evaluation of student performance.

“I can’t imagine starting my clinical year of PA school without all our standardized patient experiences,” said Christa Hubert PA ’19.

Students also practice their skills in the classroom with actual clients – local members of the community representing a wide variety of ages and health conditions. Client interactions range from patient-centered interviewing to physical examination and treatment. “We’ve brought in clients as young as two weeks old, and I think our oldest client so far was 96,” Skillman said. 

With the school’s state-of-the-art camera equipment and software, most simulation and in-class client interactions can be captured digitally with the option of linking rubrics and inserting feedback notes directly into the recording. “Standardized patient experiences are a phenomenal asset for our PA students,” asserts Melissa Murfin, chair of the Department of Physician Assistant Studies.

Stephen Folger, chair of the Department of Physical Therapy Education, offers his insights about the role simulations play in the curriculum. “We strive to give our students opportunities every day to apply what they’re learning and to practice clinical decision making, from paper cases all the way to clinical internships,” he said. “Bringing in actual clients and creating challenging standardized patient scenarios adds a vital level of realism to the student learning process.”

“It’s really different when you work on someone with a real problem instead of just your lab partner who’s trying to pretend to have a limitation,” recalls Julie Hibberd ’16, DPT ’19. “I was really nervous the first time because I felt like I had just started learning. I didn’t think I knew as much as I did. But once I got going, it all started coming together.”

Rheadon Remy PA ’18 echoes those sentiments. “The first time I walked into a real patient’s room,” he confides, “I was so nervous! But within 30 seconds, I realized it was no different from what I’d been trained to expect from my Elon experiences with standardized patients.”

“The program brings an essential piece to our students’ education that a textbook simply can’t,” says Tracy Thurnes, the Physician Assistant Studies Program’s assistant director of clinical education.

Skillman, however, is always dreaming of new and bigger possibilities for Elon’s Client & Standardized Patient program. “The use of standardized patients isn’t just for health care,” she is quick to point out. “Any educational endeavor that involves human interaction can benefit from simulated experiences.”