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FedEx flight simulation aids healthcare simulation research

Union University nursing professors Brian Foster (left) and Brad Harrell in the flight simulation at FedEx.
Union University nursing professors Brian Foster (left) and Brad Harrell in the flight simulation at FedEx.

JACKSON, Tenn.Feb. 14, 2013 – It’s not every day that an anesthesiologist and a nurse practitioner fly an aircraft, but Union University nursing professors Brian Foster and Brad Harrell found themselves doing just that recently.

But the men were flying a simulator at the FedEx Corp. Air Operations Training Center in Memphis and not a real aircraft. The FedEx center has multi-million-dollar simulators that carefully emulate true flight, so the professors felt as if they were truly in the air, Foster said.

It wasn’t simply a joy ride. The men visited the training center to learn simulator best practices. Foster, assistant professor of nursing, is working on his Doctor of Nursing Practice from Union, seeking to advance the effective use of healthcare simulators.

Harrell, associate professor of nursing and Foster’s doctoral adviser, connected with a former colleague who works at FedEx in Memphis. After a long process to gain security clearance, the Union faculty spent a few hours one evening at the training center.

“It was great to have that level of collaboration with a company that has resources that are probably unmatched even in the world,” Harrell said, “so that we could take away a learning experience and use that learning experience to help further the education of people who affect others’ lives on a daily basis.”

Training on state-of-the-art healthcare simulators is an integral part of Union’s undergraduate and graduate nurse anesthetist programs. Each of Union’s three campuses houses several simulation environments replicating hospital rooms. Electronic adult, child and infant patients respond to treatment and talk to their care givers, allowing professors to create hundreds of scenarios for students.

Interest in simulation as a teaching tool for healthcare students has recently skyrocketed, Foster said, but few researchers are studying how simulators could help healthcare professionals perfect their skills.

“Other fields, such as aviation, aerospace, the automobile industry and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, all use simulation to measure competency among their professionals,” Foster said. “Nursing, historically, has used simulation as a tool of pedagogy, or a teaching tool. But what I’m interested in is how we can use simulation to measure competency.”

FedEx uses its simulators to test pilots’ competency in unusual situations. The FedEx pilots sometimes leave simulation experiences “soaking wet in sweat,” Foster said, because the experience felt so real.

Foster said the accuracy with which the aircraft simulators replicate every aspect of the true flight experience is the key to the FedEx simulators’ effectiveness.

In the coming years, healthcare simulators will need to become better at reflecting human-to-human interaction between caregiver and patient in order to reach the same usefulness for competency training, he said.

“We’re slowly but surely making the (healthcare) simulated experience so real that there is emotional buy-in just like the flight simulators produce,” Foster said.

Both Harrell and Foster anticipate rapid growth in the capabilities of simulation technology.

“I think we’re still on the very front edge,” Harrell said.

By Samantha Adams (’13)

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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