Bringing State-of-the-Art Technology to Critical Care Education

By William B. Belk

Emergency medical services fill a critical need throughout the country, especially in rural areas. When there’s an accident or a patient needs higher-acuity care than a small community hospital can provide, air and ground medical transport services save lives.

At the center are the dedicated clinicians who provide emergency interventions and stabilizing care throughout the patient’s journey to the receiving hospital: by ambulance, fixed-wing aircraft, or helicopter. They must be ready to perform at the top of their game at a moment’s notice, making ongoing advanced clinical training a necessity. And, as with so many things during the pandemic, we saw faster, broader adoption of education concepts and technologies that support remote learning, including virtual reality (VR) and high-fidelity simulation.

Emerging technologies make it possible to extend the reach of advanced flight and critical care training, making high-quality education equally available to clinicians in rural as well as urban areas. By leveraging the latest technologies, emergency clinicians—flight and critical care paramedics, nurses, and emergency medical technicians—can advance their skills and feel confident in their decision-making to deliver the best care possible to their patients.

Bridging the education gap through technology

The days of listening to a lecture while watching a static slide presentation are fading fast as the industry embraces more engaging and interactive education. Education programs that apply advanced approaches and technology can support both in-person and distance learning. To maximize learning, training should be designed around improving patient outcomes by focusing on clinical problem solving and communication. Clinical skill and critical thinking can be improved through active participation in patient care scenarios using a combination of simulation, augmented and virtual reality, and serious gaming activities. Here are ways to apply these to critical care education:

  • Interactive manikin simulations. Today’s high-fidelity manikins are incredibly realistic, able to interact and react as a real person in the midst of a medical crisis. Manikins simulate clinical interactions with adult, high-risk obstetric, pediatric, and neonatal patients and respond to input from the learner as well as instructors. Clinicians can work through the entire care episode: meeting the patient, assessing their condition and symptoms, and proceeding with care. The manikins can simulate a full range of situations, from delivering a baby to requiring surgical interventions. The manikin reacts physiologically to procedures and medications just like a real patient would. This gives clinicians realistic, hands-on experience that builds skill and confidence.
  • VR tools. Advances in VR technology make it possible for headsets to be completely wireless and managed remotely by the instructor, opening the door for broader use. Clinicians can be immersed in realistic scenarios—as if they were working in a fixed-wing aircraft or a helicopter—that include patient situations, equipment, and interactions with other clinicians. For example, learners using VR can see and interact with the exact equipment they would use on a helicopter, from the IV pump to the ventilator. They can talk with other clinicians as if they were physically together. VR allows educators to be available anywhere in the country to provide training without travel, which reduces costs and makes the most effective use of highly trained educators.
  • Serious gaming. Serious gaming is the concept of developing games for purposes other than strictly entertainment. It allows the learner to solve problems in an interactive format that can provide feedback and encourage competition. These activities can take many forms, including video games, card games, board games, and competitive trivia, making them a versatile and effective approach to clinical education. One example of a serious game is an escape room, like the recreational ones that are so popular. The escape room can be designed to mix clinical knowledge, pop culture references, and sleuthing into an interactive learning experience designed to better prepare clinicians to care for critical patients. Each step of patient care, such as accessing medications or locating lab values, requires the team to solve the previous clues. Groups might be pitted against one another and compete to provide the most appropriate care in the shortest amount of time. This level of competitive problem solving can improve knowledge retention, helping learners apply what they’ve learned to real-world situations.

Serving communities with advanced clinical education

The accelerated adoption of these new education methods and technologies following the pandemic makes advanced clinical education more widely available to clinicians nationwide. Consider what this means for people reentering the workforce after a medical leave or military deployment. Access to VR tools reduces the need for travel to physical simulation labs and prepares people to transition directly back to work. Continuing to apply emerging educational technology will expand access to necessary training, helping all emergency clinicians advance their knowledge and skills while providing vital services to their communities.

William B. Belk is the director of simulation and innovative education for Air Methods.