Virtual reality helps train aspiring nurses at National University

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SAN DIEGO — With healthcare workers in high demand, National University is now offering training via virtual reality as part of its nursing program.

The new virtual reality pilot program allows students to learn in a safe environment during the pandemic while still getting hands-on training.

“They are embedded in the environment, making it as real as we can make it from a simulated perspective,” said Dr. Gloria J. McNeal, National University’s Assoc. VP of Community Affairs in Health.

The unique training is an online alternative to a traditional 8-week community health course at the university. A pilot group of National University nursing students will spend 120 hours acting as avatars in a simulated environment. They’ll perform tasks like listening to lung sounds, assessing wounds, obtaining blood-pressure readings and monitoring oxygen levels.

They’ll also learn instructions for medical adherence and follow-up. An instructor virtually monitors each student’s progress and can customize the patient’s response to ensure a unique experience for students.

National University is one of five schools to receive $200,000 grants from the Health Resources and Services Administration to start the program, paving the way for students like Cameron Rhodes, who started his nursing program at the height of the pandemic.

“There’s no substitution for the real thing,” Rhodes said. “But just to be introduced to the environment, and working in that setting, you are getting as close as possible to the real thing.”

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors pitched in $25,000 and philanthropic organization Las Patronas awarded the program nearly $50,000. The funds will go toward approximately 70 virtual reality headsets, software and programming.

Program leaders say the technology allows students to learn without compromising the health and safety of patients or students during COVID-19.

“I think simulation is the future of education,” Dr. McNeal said.

The simulated training is now being offered to eight cohorts of students and 40 students have completed the training, the university said. They plan to expand the training to other healthcare courses in the future.

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