Health & Fitness

Boise State video ‘game’ could transform nursing education

Using wearable technology, nursing students can see and touch objects in a virtual environment so they can practice complex medical simulations.
Using wearable technology, nursing students can see and touch objects in a virtual environment so they can practice complex medical simulations.

It looks like a scene straight out of a sci-fi movie: A young woman in nursing scrubs stands in the center of a sterile room, delicately going through the motions of what appears to be a surgical procedure.

But this is no hospital room, and there is no patient. The nurse-in-training is practicing the delicate task of inserting a catheter, only she’s doing it in thin air with the aid of virtual reality goggles and black haptic (sensory) gloves.

A Boise State University team of nursing and gaming professionals developed this wearable technology that allows nursing students to see and touch objects in a virtual environment, allowing them to practice complex medical simulations at their own pace in a video game-like setting.

The technology is called Virtual Reality Nursing Simulation with Custom Haptic System for Patient Safety, and its developers predict it will make nursing students more equipped to make the successful transition from the classroom to their medical careers.

“We call it deliberate practice – the idea that you can’t really learn a procedure unless you’re able to do it repeatedly and build up that muscle memory,” said Ann Butt, a clinical nursing professor at Boise State University who conducted field research to test the technology with students. “Unfortunately, what you often see in medical and nursing school is students are only able to practice a procedure once or twice and that’s expected to be sufficient. This system will change that.”

The technology uses Oculus Rift and a custom haptic system that recreates the sense of touch, similar to popular video game technology, to give nursing students practice on common medical procedures. The simulation walks students through a virtual environment and scores them on how well they complete a series of tasks, including sterilizing their environment.

Because it was presented like a game, it was fun and easier to learn.

Katrina Wuori, a senior nursing student who tested the gloves

“Because it was presented like a game, it was fun and easier to learn,” said Katrina Wuori, a senior nursing student who tested the gloves. “It sounds funny but you can compete for how accurately and quickly you can insert a catheter compared to another student, and it seemed like that competition made everyone try harder.”

“Using virtual reality in education provides students with opportunities to practice necessary skills in a realistic and low-risk environment,” added Anthony Ellertson, director and clinical associate professor of Boise State’s new Games, Interactive Media and Mobile program (GIMM). “Not only that, projects like this one provide a cost-efficient solution for increasing access to medical training for nurses.”

Most nursing schools currently utilize medical manikins to train students. However, the manikins can cost between $15,000-$64,000 each, making them a limited and precious resource. Many institutions don’t have enough manikins to allow all nursing students to practice on them to desired levels of expertise before transferring their skills to work on a human being.

Consequently, millions of hospital patients undergo procedures performed by trainees and new medical personnel who may not have had adequate time to practice basic but delicate procedures, like catheter insertion. This can increase patients’ discomfort and risk to secondary infections, among other things.

In contrast, Boise State’s new virtual reality technology costs about $5,000 and new “games” on which to train students can be created in four to six months.

A pilot study of the system demonstrated its promise, both in the accuracy of the students’ ability to perform the actual procedure and the ability to implement the technology at a fraction of the cost of using a medical manikin.

“Students spent significantly more time on task and on procedure in the pilot program,” Butt said. “That showed us the tremendous potential of this technology.”

The Boise State team took home a national education award for its nursing simulation system. In November, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) awarded a WCET Outstanding Work award to the team.

The Boise State team has already won a national education award for its virtual reality nursing simulation system. The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) bestowed a WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) award to the team in November.

They now hope to secure funding to develop a suite of games targeting different nursing skills, as well as develop multiplayer games that would allow nursing and medical students to practice complicated procedures together — virtually speaking.

“Nursing students don’t currently have access to medical students or vice versa,” Butt noted. “They should be learning and collaborating more, and this technology would allow them to do it from anywhere in the world. How cool would that be?”

Cienna Madrid is a communications specialist in Boise State's Office of Communications and Marketing. Learn more about Boise State at