While the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed most nursing programs and hospitals to accelerate adoption of virtual simulations and other types of educational technologies, virtual nursing simulations are not new—though they have continued to evolve to meet more industry challenges.

Virtual nursing simulations solve some of the biggest problems that come with nursing education and professional development. If anything, this accelerated adoption has only increased industry awareness around their value.

Screenshot of telehealth virtual nursing simulation

Virtual nursing simulations provide interactive clinical experiences performed virtually on a computer or similar digital learning environment. Learners assess, diagnose and practice concepts and skills in a safe, risk-free environment that simulates an actual healthcare setting.

These simulations can be fully customized and adapted to meet specific learning needs and goals—saving costs, freeing up time, and consistently delivering material and feedback to nursing professionals and students on-demand.

Virtual nursing simulations aren’t new

Although the COVID-19 pandemic drove many nursing programs and hospitals to adopt virtual simulation and other types of educational technologies, nursing simulations are not a new idea.

In fact, a 2017 Wolters Kluwer survey found that 65% of programs used visual simulation, and nearly half expected to use virtual reality within five years. The shortage of clinical sites has been a longtime issue, yet the demand for qualified nurses remains.

The theory of experiential learning has informed the use of simulations for both teaching and learning for decades, with healthcare as a key application due to the potential impact of errors on live patients. Virtual computer-based simulations date back to the early 2000s, although recent advances in programming and technology have increased their capabilities for interaction and feedback to where they provide significant added value alongside other teaching methods.

What challenges do virtual nursing simulations resolve?

Virtual nursing simulations maximize opportunities for learning by providing interactive solutions that can be accessed anytime, anywhere. While the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic about keeping people safe (and apart) have increased the urgency of implementing this mode of teaching, there are many other benefits that will far outlast this period of time. Here are a few of the challenges that virtual nursing simulations can address.

Challenge: Offering each individual training that covers the same learning outcomes equally

Virtual nursing simulations allow educators and hospital/healthcare clinical development teams to deliver optimized content consistently to all students. There is a “control” factor that this modality offers that a traditional classroom setting cannot.

Because the simulations are carefully designed to achieve specific outcomes, those delivering course content or training can trust that the same material and learning experience are delivered to every student.

Challenge: Difficult for institutions and employers to recognize training

A recent Harvard Business Review article discussed the movement toward digital credentialing in today’s data-driven workforce. Employers and industry certification programs partner with community colleges, university graduate programs and other extension schools to unbundle degrees into microcredentials that can be combined for deeper learning.

In many ways, virtual nursing simulations are a form of this digital credentialing, delivering specific, targeted content to a specific audience—but they can also be leveraged directly to fulfill digital credentialling requirements, at least in part due to their consistent content delivery.

The nurse who needs further exposure to rural healthcare can get it in a simulation designed to emulate that type of environment and expose learners to the challenges faced by nurses in such a setting. The nursing student who thinks they want to go into labor and delivery can gain hands-on experience in a safe environment that is cultivated to help them achieve specific learning outcomes.

Virtual simulations are an excellent way for schools of nursing and hospitals/healthcare organizations to train their students and nurses and maintain a record of what they’ve learned and how they’re progressing while also gaining hands-on experience with human patients in clinical settings.

Challenge: Fitting training into busy schedules, or offering training through disruptions

One of the most obvious challenges that virtual nursing simulations overcome is the potential disruption caused by inclement weather, a pandemic, a faculty member who falls ill or another situation.

If individuals need to move locations, shift their hours of availability around, or accommodate abrupt changes to availability, they need training that can adapt to their needs and empower them to be consistent in attendance. No one is subject to the limitations of a physical facility or simulation lab, or a particular time when a trainer is available.

Unlike the coordination of heavy in-person training, virtual patient simulations are available anywhere 24/7, making them an excellent option for adult learners who have many other responsibilities as well as students who already use the internet for their educational needs.

Challenge: Instructors are overcommitted

Let’s face it: today’s nursing faculty are overburdened as it is. There are many factors at play here, including the shortage of nursing faculty and simultaneous increase in nursing student enrollment.

Virtual nursing simulations can help with this issue by lightening the load on faculty, offering up more time and flexibility. These lessons can supplement existing instruction and free trainers and educators alike to offer direct, one-on-one support to improve the lesson and enhance the learning.

Challenge: Budget constraints

While virtual nursing simulations come at some cost, they also are more efficient and consistent than the varying overhead associated with a team of faculty and clinical educators charged with training delivery.

With virtual learning, there is no need to schedule multiple in-person sessions and the cost per student or individual goes down incrementally with every use. This is helpful for nursing programs charging tuition and professional development departments trying to keep to a budget.

Challenge: Need to build confidence

The primary purpose of putting nurses or nursing students in a clinical environment is to teach them skills, but there’s another big reason behind this setting: to build their real-world confidence. One of the best parts of virtual nursing simulations is that they offer learners the chance to sharpen their evaluation and critical decision-making skills in a no-risk environment. This has been consistently demonstrated in research, time and time again.

Learners earn clinical hours (if that is how a course is arranged), but they also experience challenging, engaging content, which allows them to build their knowledge and skills. The way the content is structured allows for scaffolding too, so that learners can accumulate experience. This builds their confidence, reduces anxiety and also helps them build their communication skills.

In specialty or other difficult applications like pediatric, gerontology, or even mental health, clinical simulation scenarios can help develop critical thinking and other skills within a safe environment. Ease with these sorts of clinical skills is vital to every successful healthcare provider, including nurses at any point in their career, and can render their decision making as well as bedside manner maximally effective.

Challenge: Programming around goals & accreditation needs

Nursing programs and hospital clinical education teams can use virtual simulations to build focused, detailed curricula around specific goals or requirements for nursing accreditation.

Virtual clinicals are an excellent way to map lessons directly to specific competencies. You can structure programs in a way that they target individual learning goals and provide continued practice in content areas required by accrediting agencies. Lessons and feedback can align to AACN essentials, QSEN competencies, NCLEX categories, and other specialty standards.

Virtual nursing simulations are convenient, but they have many other benefits. They allow students to actively practice skills themselves rather than passively watch other nurses practice. They are cost effective and can be scaled to fit with any budget. They overcome the challenges of limited clinical placements. They provide an excellent learning environment in a risk-free setting that allows delegation, clinical judgment and leadership practice and role playing, whether a learner is preparing for the NCLEX or to take on a new role in their hospital.

Ready to learn more about how Sentinel U’s virtual nursing simulations can round out ongoing nursing education or professional development programming for your organization? Contact us today for your demo.