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Life-like mannequins help nursing students train for real life

Eerie, no?

These mannequins are eerie. From the frozen look on their faces to their mouths which are almost always slightly ajar.

Then there’s the stuff they can do. The mannequins can “breathe” with a chest that rises and falls. They can convulse and bleed and vomit and even birth a baby.

The entire point of these high-fidelity mannequins is to make them as realistic as possible, so they can be an effective learning tool for future medical professionals. 

The mannequins are the star of the show in what’s known as simulation-based medical learning. The idea is to create realistic scenarios that medical professionals will face, in settings that are as realistic as possible. Think of it as a low-stakes way for students to practice high-stakes situations, where they can make mistakes and learn.

That’s what’s happening at the University of Michigan’s School of Nursing Clinical Learning Center, where there are six simulation rooms, where nursing students can work with a roster of 30 mannequins in 100 different medical scenarios. The mannequins come in a variety of skin tones and sizes, including infant mannequins.

Each simulation room has a one-way mirror that connects to a smaller control room. Here’s what the School of Nursing says on its website:

“From the Control Room, instructors control the mannequins and observe via one-way glass as students participate in the simulation. Within a faculty-created scenario, students are able to practice skills, including tracheostomy care, wound care, urinary catheterization care, CPR, injections, chest tube insertion, and shocking of the heart to name a few. More importantly, they learn to assess, plan care, react to changes in their patients and the environment, problem solve, and think critically. Instructors can film and record students' simulations for later and more in-depth review.”

Students are coached to take everything as seriously and realistically as possible when working with a patient (also known as a mannequin), during a simulation.  That’s what Kathleen Potempa, the dean of the University of Michigan School of Nursing, says.

A medical mannequin at UM's School of Nursing
The simulation rooms at UM's School of Nursing Clinical Learning Center are intentionally realistic

“The students become attached to that real-life situation and we do debriefings afterwards, not only to help the students learn what went well and what needs improvement, but if there are some significant, drastic changes in the patient that are not good, we help debrief.” Potempa says that includes addressing the emotional reaction the students might have in a scenario.

An infant medical mannequin
Here's a baby mannequin

These high-tech mannequins and simulations are a big improvement from how some nursing instructors trained decades-ago, when they practiced giving injections and exams on low-tech mannequins and sometimes even each other. For today’s students, pretending to be in high-stress medical situations can help them when they’re in the real ones.  Plus, if students can practice and learn in a safe space, they’re more likely to retain that information in the future. 

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