Virtual reality gives UON midwifery students chance to practice on virtual babies, rather than real ones | PHOTOS | VIDEO

Virtual learning: Midwifery student Erin Bonett uses the technology to practice neonatal resuscitation. Picture: Simone De Peak.
Virtual learning: Midwifery student Erin Bonett uses the technology to practice neonatal resuscitation. Picture: Simone De Peak.

WHILE there may be far less groaning and shouting out for epidurals than in a real life birthing suite, virtual reality technology is helping midwifery students at the University of Newcastle put theory into practice before they dive into the deep end of the workforce.

University of Newcastle (UON) students are among the first in the world to learn key anatomy and birthing techniques through virtual and augmented simulation.

Through the use of digital headsets, the students are transported into alternate worlds to experience a birthing scenario that feels real, but is in fact a simulated environment.

Lecturer in midwifery and co-project leader, Jessica Williams, said the program was designed to help students “bridge the gap” between performing neonatal resuscitation in an educational setting and a real-world emergency room.

“About 15 per cent of births in Australia and New Zealand require some form of resuscitation, which is why it is so important that our students feel comfortable and confident applying their experience in a time-critical, emergency environment,” Ms Williams said.

Second year midwifery student Erin Bonett said using the technology had already boosted her confidence in real scenarios.

“It takes you out of the sitting-in-class, writing-the-steps-down environment to having it visualised in front of you,” she said.

“I’ve been involved in quite a few real resuscitations, obviously my first couple were observational, but especially since using this I feel a lot more confident. I jump in there, I know exactly what steps to do, and I think a lot of that is down to using this virtual reality equipment.

“It is so much easier to learn this way than it is to just have a textbook and read it.”

The project is the “baby” of Donovan Jones, deputy program convenor of midwifery, who said they have had interest from clinical partners to commercialise and roll out the “groundbreaking” technology to clinicians, hospitals and international universities.

“We’re hoping to develop a number of programs like this that students and clinicians can use at home – not to replace our traditional ways of teaching, but to layer the way that students learn,” Mr Jones said. “They can get in there, they can make mistakes, and learn how those mistakes can be rectified so you ultimately have better outcomes for families.”

Next year, students at UON’s Callaghan and Port Macquarie campuses will be able to opt-in for the chance to use the simulation as part of their learning experience, which will then be compared to those without access to gauge the benefits of the virtual resource.

The UON’s innovation team responsible for developing the simulation is also using augmented reality to create a human hologram with interactive “layers” that expose the anatomy and different working functions of the body.

The team plans to adapt this to depict a pregnant woman, allowing students to get a broader understanding of gestation and the impact the baby’s position has prior to childbirth.

Craig Williams, UON’s innovation manager, said health resources often consisted of a textbook picture, which could lack detail.

“Virtual and augmented simulation combats this with the ability to provide ease of access with an incredible level of complexity and detail,” he said.

“Our aim with this technology is to fuse the separate parts of learning that students gain in theory, labs and work placement into a virtual simulation that lets them experience the pressure of what really is a life or death situation in the safe, repeatable environment of virtual reality.”

Ms Williams said the technology would also allow students living further away from campus more flexibility in their learning.

 “Some students live more than an hour away from the campus, so in order for them to get their normal neonatal resuscitation training, they have to travel quite a way to get hands-on practice,” Ms Williams said.

“This will enable them to be flexible in the way that they learn.”

UON is looking at partnerships with the UK, USA and Singapore with the hope the resource could be used as a tool for those working in third-world countries, where access to training is an issue.

“As a specific example, midwifery professionals are required to take a yearly neonatal competency test, which our neonatal resuscitation simulation has the opportunity to positively impact,” Mr Jones said.

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