Virtual Medical World Has Real-Life Value

Researchers from UT Dallas and the UT Arlington College of Nursing have created a virtual environment where graduate students can train online for the medical challenges that await them in the real world. is designed to help Advanced Practice Nursing students hone critical skills interactively, on their own schedules via distance learning.

Dr. Marjorie Zielke

“Medical simulation offers the potential to be critical technology for many reasons,” says Dr. Marjorie Zielke, assistant professor of Arts and Technology (ATEC) at UT Dallas and principal investigator for the site’s technology design.  “We can train nurses more quickly, leverage doctoral-level faculty, train on rare but potentially fatal conditions and ultimately save lives. It allows nursing students from remote locations to practice in a controlled, reduced-risk, cost-effective environment.”

Researchers believe this emerging field of virtual gaming medical simulation can improve the accuracy and speed of cognitive and behavioral skills, better preparing nursing students for real-life situations.

A medical care environment complete with virtual babies and nurses helps students prepare for critical situations.

“We have seen some promising results from a randomized study we conducted in the spring of this year,” said Dr. Judy LeFlore, associate professor of nursing at UT Arlington and principal investigator for the project. “Game students (in an experimental group) were more likely to select the right intervention and do it in a more timely manner compared to the lecture only group (control group). However, more research is needed to assure cognitive, behavioral, and/or psychomotor knowledge obtained in the virtual world can successfully be translated into the physical world.” is funded by a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and serves as both a supplement to traditional classroom instruction and a potential resource for the ongoing education of working professionals in the future.

LeFlore and Zielke submitted a research abstract about their project, titled, “Can Game Play Teach Student Nurses How To Save Lives: An Undergraduate Training Proposal for Student Nurses in Pediatric Respiratory Diseases with a Living World Gaming Construct,” to the 11th International Meeting on Simulation in Healthcare (IMSH), and placed first in the topic category of Emerging and Innovative Technologies & Methods.

Information screens on the site guide students with both pictures and text.

The initial phase of is focused on Neonatal Nurse Practitioner training, with subject matter covering conditions in newborns and babies under 2 years old. The training consists of three components:

  • Lectures by subject matter experts like LeFlore, which lend a human intelligence component and provide guidance and content.
  • Complex interactives, such as the virtual ventilator, which allow for specific training exercises and familiarity with equipment.
  • The immersive game itself, “Virtual NICU,” in which the interactive equipment appears in context, allowing nursing students to feel they are actually practicing on a patient in a virtual hospital setting.

In the game, students make decisions within their scope of responsibility on a variety of neonatal conditions.   The virtual environment allows for endless practice and a variety of scenarios in a risk-free environment that can be altered to create dilemmas that can’t be found in a textbook. The student can “feel” tired or stressed, or might have to deal with the virtual patient’s family – all real-life situations that a nurse would have to handle. Such an emphasis on psychological, behavioral and social modeling is unique, providing a distinctive teaching modality that may be used in conjunction with physical simulation, says LeFlore.

But Zielke makes it clear that simulation and virtual patients should not substitute for  traditional lectures and practicum – they simply provide another avenue of learning. She says, “I received my PhD at age 52. So I came in with much more industry experience than 20-something students who got their degrees straight out of college. I might gain more knowledge from the interactive game than from the lectures, simply because of what I already knew coming in.”

That’s one of the unique characteristics of the site – students can enter the program from different navigations, experience levels and perspectives, but will still gain the pertinent knowledge and skills they need. A system of learning metrics and usage patterns are in place to help aggregately track students’ progress and show professors how they are using the materials. The instructors are able to gauge the effectiveness of a variety of different learning modules, to determine what works best for each student. provides more than 60 lectures accompanied by dynamic learning modules designed to appeal to various learning styles. All lecture content and interactive courseware meets the core requirements defined by the National Certification Corporation and the National Association of Neonatal Nurses. Researchers are hopeful that the neonatal platform will be applied to other medical issues in the future.