National University System headquarters in La Jolla. Image via Google Maps

National University is training nursing students via virtual reality with help from a $200,000 federal grant, the La Jolla-based nonprofit said Friday.

The new simulation scenarios allow students to practice and hone skills needed on the job without compromising the health and safety of patients or students during COVID-19.

As an online alternative to the university’s traditional 8-week community health course, a pilot group of National University nursing students will spend 120 hours acting as avatars in a simulated environment, performing tasks such as listening to lung sounds, assessing wounds, obtaining blood-pressure readings, monitoring oxygen levels, and providing them with instructions for medical adherence and follow-up.

An instructor virtually monitors each student’s training progress and can customize the patient’s response to ensure a unique experience.

“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.”

With funding from a two-year grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, this pilot program aims to increase access to health care in underserved communities, the school said.

The Department of Nursing at National University’s College of Professional Studies is one of five programs nationwide to receive the competitive award.

In addition, Las Patronas awarded the program nearly $50,000 to buy about 70 virtual reality headsets, and the San Diego County Board of Supervisors awarded $25,000 to cover the cost of software and programming for the virtual reality headsets.

This simulated training focuses on serving vulnerable communities, such as the local homeless population, as a way to improve the medical infrastructure focused on underserved populations. Throughout the course, students collaborate with peers from other disciplines, such as public health, on projects to address that community’s most pressing health concerns.

The simulated training is now being offered to eight cohorts of students that will total 80 students by the end of the grant period in 2022.

To date, about 40 students have completed the training. 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.”

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