What is a virtual simulation?

Online learning has taken the world by storm, and healthcare is among the many industries to have incorporated it into its practices. Case in point: virtual clinical simulations, also known as virtual nursing simulations, which are rapidly growing in use and offering vast benefits to learners and administrators alike.

Virtual nursing simulations are a type of clinical experience where interactions with patients are performed virtually on a computer or other digital learning environment, in ways that parallel real-world engagement. In a virtual nursing simulation, learners can assess, diagnose and practice skills such as decision making and prioritization of care without the risks of in-person interaction.

What has recent adoption of virtual nursing simulations looked like?

COVID drove adoption of virtual nursing simulations

Virtual nursing simulations have been around for a while now, but the COVID-19 public health crisis changed life as we know it—including how patients are able to receive care, and how students of nursing as well as practicing nurses receive the clinical training they need. Virtual clinicals became more than just a convenience—they became a necessity for healthcare facilities and even nursing education programs as many hospitals suspended clinicals during the pandemic.

As healthcare providers everywhere have been forced to adapt to today’s unique and increasingly virtual environment, telehealth care also emerged as a feasible way for healthcare providers to monitor and diagnose patients’ healthcare issues.

While adoption of virtual clinicals, telehealth and similar types of practices have increased radically in the past 12 months, it appears that these types of practices are here to stay—with states like California modifying its requirements to allow students who do not have access to in-person clinical training to complete it through virtual nursing simulations.

State boards implementing increased adoption of virtual nursing simulations

In fact, the California Board of Registered Nurses (BRN) recommends that about 25% of clinical time be replaced with virtual nursing simulations. Think that’s only during COVID times? Think again: that number was temporarily raised to 50% to accommodate the pandemic, but will return to 25% or higher once pandemic restrictions finally lift.

More nursing state boards are expected to incorporate more virtual simulation into their requirements, particularly since the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) has validated the tool and endorsed the creation of virtual simulation guidelines for prelicensure programs. These guidelines continue to expand as simulations evolve.

Understanding the specific ways in which virtual nursing simulations can supplement and enhance nursing education—both foundational and ongoing—can result in major professional growth at lower cost, lower risk, and more effective design around student needs and certification goals.

What are the benefits of virtual nursing simulations?

The convenience of virtual nursing simulations is easy to recognize, but the benefits they offer learners extend far deeper than that. Used alongside traditional clinical hours, virtual nursing simulations can help augment and enhance in-person clinical experience.

In the healthcare setting, virtual simulations protect patients and staff.

Virtual clinicals eliminate the risk of nursing students getting exposed to contagious diseases such as COVID-19, or conversely, bring such a virus into the healthcare setting to expose patients and others.

Aside from protecting patients’ health, virtual simulations also offer new nurses the training they need without putting patients in a position where they feel their privacy isn’t valued. In virtual simulations, potentially uncomfortable scenarios can be freely explored. In other words, new nurses can learn and practice in a safe, comfortable environment.

Reducing patient risk as nurses learn new skills is another concern addressed by virtual learning. Starting with prelicensure students who are still learning to anticipate risk and prevent harm, virtual clinical simulations provide experiential learning without direct patient risk. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality already estimates that around 100,000 annual deaths result from medical errors; anything that can be done to reduce this incidence is imperative.

Virtual simulations allow learners to practice anytime, anywhere.

Scheduling conflicts are a non-issue with virtual simulations. Nurses and nursing students who have struggled to find clinical placement can complete modules at their own pace and control the topics they explore.

Unlike an in-person environment where current patient caseload drives what nurses learn in clinicals, in the virtual environment, learners control what they learn and how they learn it—whether they want exposure to an area like mental health or pediatrics or wish to focus their learning on rural health or hospital care.

Equal access to educational opportunities is facilitated through virtual nursing simulations.

Standardizing the modules that learners go through ensures so that everyone has a fair chance to access a complete presentation of educational content. It also means that internal assessments may also be standardized.

With virtual nursing simulations, scheduling conflicts become a non-issue, removing an obstacle from engagement with learning opportunities. Learners can fit this into their lives more easily. This can help address disparities in the nursing workforce around ethnic and socioeconomic lines, and contribute to a more diverse provider workforce, a need that has been well-characterized by groups such as the 2004 Sullivan Commission.

Virtual clinical simulations ease faculty burden.

The logistics of helping students obtain clinical placement can be challenging, especially amid an environment of rising nursing school enrollment and the fact that schools of nursing are now competing against other healthcare programs for clinical placements.

Virtual clinicals solve many problems, allowing instructors to focus on helping students apply what they learn in the clinical environment. In addition, virtual clinical simulations eliminate the need to run multiple in-person clinical sessions and manage all of the associated details and costs.

Faculty can monitor student learning.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of virtual clinical simulations is the ability of faculty to monitor learner performance and offer relevant and timely feedback to increase efficacy. Nursing program leaders and faculty can track student progress and work together to make recommendations that drive student improvements.

How do nursing programs incorporate virtual nursing simulations into their courses?

Virtual simulation can be an effective way to teach nurses and students in nursing school to learn communication skills, assessment and screening techniques and much more. Many institutions adopt simulations in specific courses or treat simulations as separate, standalone programs to meet class requirements.

Dalhousie University has been conducting an in-depth study of how virtual nursing simulations like Sentinel U can affect learning outcomes, motivated by the need to address an observed theory-practice gap in community health training. Consistently across the board, students who had used the virtual nursing simulations performed better than students who had other learning experiences.

These are a few ways that educators are using virtual simulation to educate their students (and clinical educators their nurses):

To build confidence

Especially for new nurses, building confidence is so important—and virtual nursing simulations help with this. With simulation, nurses are able to develop their clinical reasoning ability and competence, thereby building their confidence before they enter nursing practice. Simulation offers a safe and realistic environment where nurses can test their skills before they go “live” on the floor.

To gain access to wider populations

If you teach for a nursing program in a rural area, you might not have immediate or convenient access to Level-1 trauma center with an emergency room or a behavioral health facility. But with virtual nursing simulations, the world as an educator opens up significantly.

Nurses can learn about anything and everything from the convenience of their computers. They can work through different situations and make care decisions based on many different factors in many different specialty areas of nursing. No longer is geography a limitation to the kind of hands-on training a nursing student or nurse can receive.

To add a layer of accountability to your program

In nursing education, it’s so important to be able to demonstrate effectiveness of learning—whether that’s an in-person clinical or a virtual clinical simulation. A big benefit of virtual nursing simulations is that they come with detailed dashboards of data about how learners are progressing and where they need more experience or education. This ability to track and store results is immensely helpful to nursing educators as well as professional development departments within hospitals and healthcare organizations.

To prepare for exams

Because simulations give students hands-on practice, they are a great way to help nurses translate textbook learning into real-world scenarios that they can understand. In fact, virtual simulations are a great way to prepare nursing students with the clinical judgment and critical thinking skills they need to pass important exams like the NCLEX.

To cover topics where you need the most support

A challenge today is that many nursing institutions do not have sufficient access to clinical faculty and sites. Virtual nursing simulations solve this challenge by reducing the need for faculty and eliminating the need for lab space and clinical placement.

Or perhaps your challenge is that you need to reinforce or teach a particular area of nursing such as mental and behavioral health, maternal health and obstetrics or geriatrics. Virtual clinicals allow nurses and students to test their knowledge about specialty areas of nursing and learn about the specific elements of caring for different types of patients in different scenarios.


How Virtual Nursing Simulations Can Serve Your Team

Pioneers in online nursing education have been offering virtual clinicals to students for years now, including our peers at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, who created a simulation center to bring virtual simulation to life.

It appears that for now, nursing simulations are not going anywhere—and for good reason. As Johns Hopkins puts it, “virtual reality and virtual simulation can lead to an increased number of high-quality online programs that allow nurses to remain in the workforce while advancing their education.” Stay up-to-date on the latest changes implemented by states’ nursing regulatory bodies re: nursing education (assembled by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing).

If you’d like to learn more about Sentinel U’s virtual clinical simulations and scenarios for nursing students as well as current nurses and healthcare/hospital workers, contact us for more information. We were founded by the leadership team at American Sentinel University, an online, regionally accredited university exclusively focused on healthcare programs. As a pioneer in online nurse education, American Sentinel recognized the challenges confronting healthcare—including nursing students’ lack of access to quality clinical placements—and built Sentinel U’s virtual clinicals to address this problem.

We’d love to give you a demo of our virtual clinicals and simulations used by 211 schools and healthcare organizations across the U.S. and Canada! Contact us today.