Shenandoah University Goes High-Tech to Prep Physician Assistant Grads

Just as Shenandoah University prepares to graduate its first class of physician assistant students from its Loudoun campus, it is rolling out a new technology that brings the realities of the hospital to the classroom.

The university’s physician assistant program, housed at Scholar Plaza in Lansdowne, has launched an augmented reality class where students can experience what it’s like to work in a surgical wing of a hospital without leaving their desks.

The class invites students to don virtual reality goggles that allow them to see the surgical wing 360 degrees simply by turning their head as if they were standing in the room. The program was created by assistant professor Erika Francis. Gleaning from her years of experience working in hospitals, Francis created videos that capture the fast-paced, often-stressful moments working with patients who are experiencing pain. She recruited theater students from the Shenandoah Conservatory to perform in the videos.

“We call it high-tech, high-touch,” she said. “So when they’re on the (hospital) floor, it’s not the first time they’re experiencing an intense situation.”

During a recent physician assistant class, the students at the university’s Scholar Plaza campus in Lansdowne put on the virtual reality goggles to watch a video that shows a team of nurses and physician assistants preparing a teenage girl for appendicitis surgery. Before the students watched the video, Francis gave a short lecture on what the industry calls hand-offs, which refers to the medical staff transferring information about patients, especially during shift changes. She invited them to observe how the physician assistants handled it in the video.

“Lack of communication can cause delayed care and even result in deaths,” Francis said.

“This is where errors happen,” added Stephanie Bernard, assistant professor and assistant director at Scholar Plaza. “You’ll be on a 12-hour shift and then you have to hand off all of this information quickly to the next PA.”

She told the students to pay attention to how this hand-off of information is done in the hospitals when they are on rotation. But, she added, they can get started on observing this right now thanks to the virtual reality program.

J. J. Ruscella, executive director for the Shenandoah Center for Immersive Learning, told the students that physician assistants who came before them had to wait until they were on rotation—shadowing in the hospitals—before they could experience the demand of making quick decisions and clearly communicating in a heated, high-adrenaline atmosphere.

“You will be some of the first people to experience these learning tools,” he said.

Bernard said the augmented reality class is SU’s latest effort to try to prepare students in the physician assistants master’s degree program for the real deal. It’s among the reasons the program is one of the most sought after in the region. More than 500 students apply each year, and only 60 get in.

Bernard has seen demand spike since SU launched the physician assistant program at the Scholar Plaza, because it’s more accessible than the Winchester campus for students living in the Washington, DC, metro area. She even has a few students who commute from Pennsylvania to Lansdowne. “There’s no way they would enroll if they had to go clear to Winchester,” Bernard said, “but this location makes it possible for them.”

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