Niagara University nursing student Elena Kalyanova completes a healthcare training session using virtual reality.

Nine-year-old Anthony lay in his hospital bed with a stomach ache. Lorressa Trometer, a student in the Niagara University College of Nursing’s accelerated program, walked into his room and immediately began to comfort him as she assessed his health. She checked his blood pressure and heart rate as his father anxiously watched, and offered him a book to pass the time while his tests were being analyzed.

A typical scenario for nursing students, perhaps, but this one took place in a skills lab in Dunleavy Hall on the NU campus through the use of virtual reality, which is adding an additional level of realism to on-campus clinical experiences for NU’s nursing students.

The integration of VR was made possible through a grant from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation, which funded the purchase of 24 pairs of virtual reality headsets and a VR platform. The technology creates an interactive three-dimensional world that maximizes engagement as nursing students treat a variety of virtual patients, some of whom may present with conditions they might not encounter on a physical rotation.

“It’s another venue for learning that we are able to offer,” said Dr. Scott Erdley, director of NU’s simulation and clinical skills labs. “Communication was a key issue with our manikins. VR allows more interaction in the context of providing care and compels students to respond more realistically.”

The ability to communicate with her patient directly is one of the things Rose Crisci enjoyed most about the use of VR.

“It allowed me to block out the rest of the class and focus on my nursing skills and organize my health assessment process,” she said. “It required me to critically think based on the patient's presentation and response to my treatment and prioritize the steps needed in the actual clinical setting to treat a diagnosis. As students, we are following licensed nurses on the floor and always have that person to ask questions and help us guide our encounters with patients. In the VR system, it forces you to practice your practical skills and academic learning to make your own decisions, allowing us to build on our confidence with our nursing skills and critical thinking.”

Dr. Erdley noted that VR allows the students to work through the nursing process in a different context than in a classroom, clinical experience, or simulation, giving them an opportunity to put what they’ve learned in those other situations together as they work through the VR scenarios. He added that the software allows customization of the scenarios to ensure they meet course or clinical skill requirements.

Nursing student Collin Sears says the use of VR gave him a better understanding of how to assess real-world situations. “I feel it is the process of reacting to patients and utilizing our acquired knowledge that really solidifies key nursing concepts. We were able to see what our classmates were doing within the VR space, and that third-person perspective allows you to analyze the unfolding patient case and gives you that outsider view of how you may have approached the scenario differently.”

“You learn bits and pieces in all your different classes,” added Gordon Wojton Jr., “but now you have a patient in front of you, which allows you to exercise your clinical judgement. The lightbulb finally goes off, and you put two and two together.

“I think the use of VR will be vital to future nursing students,” he continued. “There is simply no better way to control the patient case and environment while putting students into a situation where they can apply and remediate what they are learning.”