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Virtual reality preparing nursing students to tackle rural health care challenges

At Texas A&M University's School of Nursing, students are using virtual reality to gain real-world experience in treating patients.
According to the National Institutes of Health, bout 20% of America's 333 million people live in rural settings. Yet, less than 10% of the nation's 1 million physicians do. That's created a health care gap between rural and urban communities. Now, there is an effort to bridge that gap with care from nurses and it all starts with virtual reality.
The VR simulations they focus revolve around common medical conditions people in rural areas often face, like managing chronic conditions, mental and maternal postpartum care, as well as substance abuse -- something students face one-on-one with a virtual patient.
Posted at 2:56 PM, Feb 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-13 14:56:26-05

ROUND ROCK, Texas — Students at Texas A&M University's School of Nursing are using virtual reality to gain real-world experience in treating patients.

"It's really introducing them to an area of care for nurses that's outside of the acute care setting," said Dr. Elizabeth Wells-Beede, who is a clinical associate professor.

She said the simulations are designed to take place away from a large hospital setting and, instead, in places the students might find in a rural area.

"Oftentimes, we kind of experience things in a hospital setting, so it was really nice to see a doctor's office setting in virtual reality," said Elaine Jackson, a nursing student.

In one simulation, nursing students helped a young boy manage his diabetes.

"I really liked how we could apply our knowledge in a completely different environment,” said nursing student Meryem Mohamed. "I think having a person in front of me, regardless of whether it's a simulated patient through the VR or even a real person in front of me, I think is really the best way for me to apply my skills and apply my knowledge."

The VR simulations revolve around common medical conditions people in rural areas often face, like managing chronic conditions, mental and maternal postpartum care, as well as substance abuse— something students face one-on-one with a virtual patient.

"We had to ask them some questions and delve deeper throughout the conversation,” said nursing student Mario Discua. “And then the AI [artificial intelligence], or the patient, actually talked back to us."

The pandemic prompted telehealth to expand rapidly, making virtual visits more commonplace— and highlighting the need for training to better help get care to patients.

"Before COVID, you saw maybe one or two vendors that were doing different things with VR to now you see anywhere up between 10 to 15 vendors," Dr. Wells-Beede said. "So, a lot of health care institutions are really looking at VR and how it can be implemented into not only academia, but also practice."

It is helping place these future nurses on the cutting edge of a new frontier in health care.