National University puts nursing students into virtual communities

National University, headquartered in La Jolla, has implemented a virtual reality training program for its nursing students.

National University, headquartered in La Jolla and celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has launched a virtual reality program to provide nursing students with a simulation of hands-on clinical training as part of a federal grant.

The program turns students into avatars, said Gloria McNeal, National University’s associate vice president for community affairs in health. “They walk around in underserved neighborhoods meeting homeless people, meeting people who have drug addictions, as well as some of the things in those communities that are helpful, like churches and other organizations.”

The virtual entities do not speak but dole out text messages that the students can read, McNeal said.

The nursing students then “design a program plan to assist them,” she said.

The virtual reality training is comparable to hands-on clinical experience, McNeal said. It’s embedded in the community health portion of the university’s nursing program. The simulation amounts to up to about 22 hours, McNeal said.

“Where they would be out in the field in those communities, instead we’re doing a virtual perspective,” she said. “We can control the environment, so we’re able to help the students understand what those communities need and [ask] how would you address those needs.”

Gloria McNeal, National University associate vice president for community affairs in health
Gloria McNeal, National University associate vice president for community affairs in health, says the university’s virtual reality training program helps students understand communities’ nursing needs.

McNeal said the program was developed to answer a call by the Health Resources and Services Administration, a federal agency that offered grant money for the program. Only five schools were selected to run the pilot program, McNeal said.

“The impetus was to look at the fact that most nursing students are trained to work in acute care settings like hospitals, but they don’t really have a lot of experience in the community,” McNeal said. HRSA “really wanted us to focus on that, to get them prepared. Many of these communities are underserved and unsafe, so if we could look at it from a simulated perspective, it would be a win-win.”

The program was created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. It is currently funded through 2022 with help from the initial $200,000 grant from HRSA and donations from other organizations, such as La Jolla-based philanthropy group Las Patronas, which gave $50,000 toward the cost of the virtual reality headsets, and the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, which awarded $25,000 to cover the cost of software and programming for the headsets.

“A project like this needs pretty substantial funding,” McNeal said. “We’re still looking for other entities.”

Beyond providing a contactless way to interact during the pandemic, the program promotes student safety, she said. “It’s unpredictable what the students might experience. In this way, we can help them learn what some of the dangers might be and then how to avoid them and how to work around it. ... It gives them the virtual hands-on experience that they are not getting in a traditional nursing setting.”

So far, 50 students have completed the virtual reality training. McNeal said she anticipates exceeding 80 students by the end of the two-year grant period.

McNeal said course surveys have indicated “students find the experience very exciting. It has helped them.”

Cameron Rhodes, who finished the training in December, said the program “was extremely helpful ... to understand the different kinds of impacts that socioeconomics play on different communities.”

Rhodes, who lives in Reedley in Central California, said, “It’s especially helpful for folks who may have never had exposure to those kinds of communities that we’re looking to make an impact in in the real world.”

The simulation training, he said, gave him an idea of “what some people in these communities go through” and was “instrumental in understanding how everything works together in an institutionalized role.”

It also helped him identify a need in his own community that he wrote a grant proposal to address. “I’m excited about possibly getting to implement the work from the [simulated] class in the real world,” he said.

Rhodes’ proposal seeks to reduce obesity in his community by helping to educate people and implement ways to promote a healthier lifestyle.

“All because he walked around in this neighborhood virtually and identified some things that the community would need and turned it into a grant proposal,” McNeal said.

She said the program could be applied in other disciplines as well. “Public health certainly could benefit from this program because they are out in the community. Health care administration and data analytics ... could significantly benefit from having the same kind of experience.”

“Simulation in nursing is in its infancy,” she said. “Other disciplines like medicine are ahead of us a little bit on this, but we’re catching up.”

McNeal said National University will “keep forging ahead, and we’re going to grow as virtual reality grows.” ◆