Skip navigation

Emergency Medical Services: Simulated technology allows education to be hands-on

There’s an ambulance at Tidewater Community College’s Virginia Beach Campus but no emergency.

As part of the emergency medical services program, students training to be care providers have the opportunity to hop into a stationary, simulated vehicle that mimics the experience of treating and taking patients to hospitals.

“What we used to do – and what most programs still do – is put the patient on the floor and tell the students, ‘Now imagine it being very stressful, in low space and not wonderful lighting, and it being loud,’ but they really don’t get to experience it,” says EMS program coordinator Jason Ambrose. “Now they get to experience it all the time.”

Emergency Medical Services Vehicle

The Regional Health Professions Center is the headquarters of the division of health professions, which was designed with simulation in mind. The building, which opened in early 2011, contains ER bays, a furnished two-story apartment, a doctor’s office and the ambulance — each element solely used as educational space providing firsthand experience under guided instruction.

TCC’s program is the most technologically advanced in the state, according to Ambrose, and among the best on the East Coast. It is among the few institutions that offer students access to simulated technology.

“In the past, adults haven’t been seen as a subset of education – they were kind of lumped into the same category as third-graders, where you dump information, and they retain it,” Ambrose says. “We know now, after years of research, that’s just not how adults learn. They learn best by case studies, hands-on experience and problem-solving. The ambulance and other simulations just enhance it tenfold.”

“We use the ambulance to give them a simulated environment as close to the real thing as possible,” says EMS instructor Steve Coco, whose students are training to be Basic EMS providers. “This way, they can move the patient from the couch, the floor (in the simulated apartment), the ground, onto the stretcher – maybe by way of a backboard – and then they can actually put the patient in the ambulance. This is as close as you can possibly get.”

“Patients” are high fidelity simulators or mannequins that can blink, bleed and assess pain on a scale of 1 to 10. While the mannequin has a “basic vocabulary,” Ambrose says proctors can use a microphone to communicate more complicated symptoms, adopting whatever condition is plugged into the computer. The simulator can have a severe migraine for one round and, with a little makeup and a bag of fake blood, become a gunshot victim the next.

students learning how to deliver a baby

“There’s a whole section of our curriculum on behavior and professionalism – how to talk to each other and to patients, and it wasn’t something we could really judge before,” Ambrose says. “It’s kind of hard to assess their professionalism on something that just didn’t respond. Now that we have simulators that will respond to what they do, we’ve seen a huge change in their professionalism. We stress the idea that when you’re in the room with the simulator, it’s just like you’re in the room with a patient. You don’t say stuff in front of the simulator that you wouldn’t say in front of a patient.”

Paramedic student Charles McCleod takes this to heart.

“I felt it was important to treat the patient – because at this point it is a patient to me – the same way, all the time,” says McCleod, a former fire captain and current rescue volunteer. “So I wanted to make sure I was doing a great job with patient care and not treating that mannequin-slash-patient any differently than you would expect to treat somebody in the field.”

Coco says working on the ambulance teaches students something else, too.

“It gives them a better indication of what they will actually be doing once they start working or volunteering as EMT professionals and healthcare providers. It’s a realization of what it might be like out there.”