Innovation, News, Secondary Care

Inside Staffordshire University’s new £5.8m Centre for Health Innovation: immersive simulations, AR and upskilling

Staffordshire University is set to officially launch its £5.8 million Centre for Health Innovation, a simulated learning environment that can be used to train health and social care students and upskill NHS staff, in October 2021.

The high-tech learning and teaching spaces feature a combination of immersive, virtual and augmented reality technologies, as well as automated mannequins in a simulation suite, to train the next generation of healthcare professionals.

Three years in the making, the centre started out life as a high-tech simulation facility but learnings, the natural development of technology and the pandemic led to a rethink – and a bid for government funding through the ‘Get Building Fund’.

Part-funded by the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Local Enterprise Partnership, the physical centre is still under construction but already providing key educational functions.

When complete, it will act as a hub for the latest simulation-based education equipment, as well as ‘patient mannequins’ which can talk, breathe and be used for practising a vast range of clinical skills and assessments techniques, including the administration of medicines and injections. The mannequins can also be controlled remotely to help with recreating real-world scenarios.

All of the spaces within the new centre will also be equipped with cutting-edge audio-visual observation equipment, including discreet microphones and cameras.

“Not only will we have the building, but the Centre for Health Innovation will be an entity, a place that happens to sit within Staffordshire, on this campus. This building will allow us to do so much more,” said Mike Phillips, Associate Dean at the university’s School of Health and Social Care.

“It will allow us to work much more around the concept of health innovation, particularly using digital health tech. Our pedigree is not just in health and social care education, we’re also very well known for gaming and computing. These all feed in very well to our agenda around simulation-based education,” he explained.

“It makes a brilliant ‘test bed’ for new innovations in healthcare. To be able to bring a product, system or process into what feels like a real-world environment and test it safely, knowing that no patient or member of staff is going to come to harm – that’s a great opportunity for people to innovate.”

Telling HTN about the centre’s strategy and message, ‘creating safer communities’, Mike added: “We’ve got a very strong theme about patient safety. We deliver that through a unique approach, including human factors education – a science of human behaviours, if you like. It allows us to understand how error happens and by understanding our human fallibility we can try to avoid error and reduce harm. That fits very well with our delivery through simulation.”

As an example, Mike detailed how students can be ‘immersed’ as participants in a situation such as treating a cardiac arrest patient in an emergency department, while peers observe and provide feedback and discussion to help with understanding performances.

The audio-visual technology used is also web-based with two-way communication, enabling students to learn from their own homes, other areas on campus, or from another location or country entirely via mobile phone.

“What the pandemic has done is forced us to think about ways that we can deliver simulation-based education remotely. We had participants that were shielding, who were propped up on a laptop screen on a trolley, in with their peers who were part of a simulation activity,” Mike said.

On the immersive technology side, the centre will have rooms that act as ‘blank, grey canvases’ fitted with ceiling-mounted technology that turns them into different settings, such as a patient’s home or an operating theatre.

A number of spaces across the university already have these rooms in use, Mike explained, “We train a lot of paramedic students here. We can train them to go and assess patients in this brightly lit room on a table with a mannequin. When they go out into practice, they’re never going to find themselves in such surroundings.

“One of the things we do is an unconscious patient scenario in a nightclub scene. So, it’s dark, there’s flashing lights, there’s people around them dancing, we add loud music. So, we train them to work in the environment they might be delivering in.

“We can also teach our nursing students how to take a blood sample from a fake arm. But when they do it on their community placements in their elderly patients’ homes, which may not always be as clean as a doctors’ surgery and might have dogs or cats running around, it will be a totally different scenario to what’s presented as being the real world.”

In another ‘case study’ example, Mike added: “Say you’re going off on a placement as a student nurse and you’re going to an operating theatre for six weeks – that’s incredibly daunting. But what we can do now is go to that exact operating theatre with our 360-degree recording equipment. And we can make that operating theatre appear in one of our rooms on campus. So that person can familiarise themselves with that environment.”

Such technology was inspired by innovations in parallel industries and areas, such as commercial aviation, nuclear power and the military – who may prepare troops for real-world scenarios using mock-ups of camps and other environments.

“We’re teaching practitioners of the future to work in a way that’s more like what clinical practice will be, so they’re better prepared and more mindful of the trappings that can create a situation that could expose them to error and patient harm,” he concluded.

The university is creating a ‘hub and spoke’ model and has held discussions with NHS trusts seeking advice on building their own simulation centres. However, Mike says, “I can say to them, ‘do you really want to build a simulation centre?’ or ‘do you want to mirror some of the tech facilities we’ve got so that, actually, your learners in your trust can virtually learn in our simulation centre without having to come here?’ We can do that through this approach using tech we’ve got called Learning SPACE, as well as augmented reality and virtual reality.

“Now our partners are thinking ‘why would we want to build this room that’s largely unused, when we can access you virtually, not only for your facilities but for your academic expertise?’ You don’t need these brilliant facilities peppered all around the region, provided you’ve got a really open mind and the host facility makes themselves really accessible and your intention is to make a contribution to the upskilling of the workforce”, he said.

“It’s actually about us as a university wanting to perform our responsibility to our communities,” he added, “we want to create the very safest of graduates for the healthcare professions.”

Mike also highlighted that he wants the centre to be used to upskill the existing workforce, to ensure that they keep developing professionally.

“Big NHS trusts around us are key stakeholders to us,” he continued. “We send out the new workforce, and so it’s essential that, in parallel, we continue to support the professional development of the existing workforce.

“We know that all NHS staff take their continuous professional development very seriously, but we want to be able facilitate that much more easily and to a higher level, as well as through embracing the technological developments that are there.”

On the subject of remote learning, Mike also discussed how Staffordshire’s pre-pandemic focus on blended learning helped them to transition smoothly to remote work, and why they are interested in working with more sector and industry partners in that area.

“We were well-equipped from the very start. Because of work we’d done in advance, we could do things like being able to incorporate people into simulation-based education even though they’re remote,” he stated.

“We’ve been able to open up to a much wider audience, to be able to bring them live into rooms with peers and contribute. We’ve also developed our base of other facilities, like virtual reality platforms for learning clinical assessment skills, and those are things we want to explore further.

“What this has done is stimulate us even more to want to now work with sector and industry partners with expertise in developing these kinds of technologies, to really push the boundaries more and partner with them to develop the technologies of tomorrow.”

While some of the centre’s educational aspects and technologies have already been in use, the physical opening of the building will represent, according to Mike, the “marker of a moment where the entity of the Centre for Health Innovation really launches…that’s about the partnerships, the innovative working and the supporting startups and SMEs to bring their innovations to scale.”

Find out more about Staffordshire’s Centre for Health Innovation through the university website.