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Richards Foundation supports virtual reality toolkits

April 2020

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From left: Richards Foundation trustees
Linda Arman and Tammy Rice

Cutting-edge… Advanced… State-of-the-art… These are the standards most of us have for the technology in our pockets and in our homes. For students at UMass Medical School, this type of technology is also found in their learning environments. And thanks to the generosity of the Paul C. and Gladys W. Richards Foundation, there’s soon to be more of it.

In December 2019, the Richards Foundation donated $24,000 to UMass Medical School’s interprofessional Center for Experiential Learning and Simulation (iCELS). This gift will enable students from all three of its graduate schools—medicine, nursing and biomedical sciences—to explore new worlds of simulation training. Virtual worlds, in fact.

According to Melissa Fischer, MD, MEd, associate dean for undergraduate medical education and executive director of iCELS, the Richards Foundation gift will be used to acquire new virtual reality kits for use by students.

“Each kit will include a computer with enhanced graphics and animation capabilities, a VR headset and hand controls, with which they can interact with 3D simulation scenarios,” Dr. Fischer said.

Those scenarios will provide students with several types of situations as well as with a variety of virtual patients.

“We’ll be able to program interactive scripts that portray vulnerable patients such as children or adolescents,” she said. “Students do not have many opportunities to interact with these patients, and the conversations are often sensitive, so practice is particularly important. This training can help students gain these skills by interacting with simulated patients who can answer questions about medical history or current symptoms. ”

When Richards Foundation trustees Tammy Rice and Linda Arman visited the iCELS in November 2019, they got more than a routine tour. “We showed them a virtual reality module that gave them a 3-D hospital experience,” Dr. Fischer said. “When we offered to take them ‘inside’ that room, Tammy jumped at the chance.

Using a virtual reality headset and hand controllers, Tammy “moved” around this room. She could examine items there and look for possible errors that could impact patient safety.

“In this type of simulation, learners can interact with an environment and compare actual care with what is recorded in the simulated patient’s medical record to determine if any errors in care or medication have occurred,” said Dr. Fischer.

Tammy, who has a nursing background, was amazed by the experience.

“It was so realistic. I really came away with a great appreciation for this training method,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to go home and tell my family about my virtual reality experience. I think they were a little jealous!”

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MD student trying out virtual reality tools

Simulation training is not a new concept in medical education. Anyone who has taken CPR training likely remembers or has used the mannequin affectionately known as Resusci-Annie, which has been around since the 1950s.

Mannequins are still used today—the Richards Foundation has purchased several for simulation training at UMMS—and they are now far more complex, featuring the capacity to closely mimic a real patient undergoing specific treatment. For example, iCELS is equipped with several high-fidelity human patient simulation (HFHPS) mannequins that are used to train students and health care professionals in the broader Central Massachusetts area to care for patients who are unstable or to treat specific critical case scenarios.

In fact, iCELS was established in 2013 with the objective of becoming the simulation hub for excellence in education, training, research and innovation for UMass Medical School and for the broader medical/health care community. It features 20 clinic exam rooms, four large simulation scenario rooms that can mimic clinical or emergency situations, and task trainer stations for specific skills. Resources also include decidedly low-tech but no less valuable standardized patients—actors who are trained to role play as patients with a variety of ailments. These individuals help learners build communication and critical thinking skills in areas ranging from basic medical history-taking to treatment of opioid overdose.

Virtual reality tools offer the best training available today, and the sky is the limit as to how they will evolve and change education in the future.

“The Richards Foundation gift, which is one of many they’ve bestowed on iCELS over the years, enables us to maintain the highest standards of medical education and we are deeply grateful for it,” said Dr. Fischer.