Dead patient? New tech gives students another try

In a fast-paced drill, medical students scramble around a hospital bed, delivering chest pumps and shocks to an elderly woman who is clinging to life.

A few minutes later, she stabilizes. "Patient has a pulse," a student says.

Had the outcome been different, no one would have died. That's because these students haven't been practicing on human beings. Their patient was a life-like mannequin, one that can speak, bleed, sweat, cry and "experience" medical conditions like heart attacks and seizures.

"It actually looks and feels like a real person," said Vanessa Gepielago, who recently graduated from the nursing program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Over 700 students studying in various fields practice at UNLV's Clinical Simulation Center, a 32,000-square-foot lab that has been set up like a real hospital. It offers standardized patient rooms, medical labs and surgery units, and students from three colleges pay lab fees to use the facility.

All that's missing are human patients.

Medical and technical professionals monitor the students, training and briefing them on their performance with the mannequins, then having them practice repeatedly while other students monitor them on a live stream.

"Once you're there in real life, there's real consequences, but over here you can make your mistakes, gain your confidence, gain your knowledge, and then once you go out there you're better prepared to do it on real people," said Dr. Allen Pourmoussa, a resident at the University of Nevada School of Medicine.

Students say the experience also prepares them emotionally, because the mannequins feel so real.

"Knowing that maybe you didn't revive the mannequin, it's heartbreaking to know that could have been a real patient, so I do kind of treat it like a real patient," Gepielago said.

The students don't work only on the elderly. The mannequins range in age from infants to full-grown adults. And not all the scenarios are life-or-death. Students also practice simpler tasks, like how to clean patients and draw blood.

The experience proved invaluable, Gepielago says.

"When you start working on your first day … 'Have you ever done this before?'" she said.

"And it's good to say, yes, I have."