Health

University of Iowa earns $8 million grant to bring high-tech health care training to rural areas

Mobile units containing patient simulators will travel across state

A classroom in the University of Iowa's College of Nursing building is seen Sept. 5, 2019, in Iowa City. (Jim Slosiarek/
A classroom in the University of Iowa’s College of Nursing building is seen Sept. 5, 2019, in Iowa City. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

The University of Iowa has received an $8 million grant to create a mobile program to train health care providers and first responders in rural areas on rarely seen procedures using patient simulation.

Called Simulation in Motion-Iowa, the program was envisioned by the College of Nursing as a way to bring state-of-the-art training directly to rural health care workers.

“Part of the goal of the simulation is to create clinical situations an EMT, a paramedic or a nurse might not see that often and allow them to practice those skills, that critical thinking, and do it in a safe environment,” said Jacinda Bunch, assistant professor of nursing and co-director of Simulation in Motion-Iowa.

A portion of the grant from the Helmsley Charitable Trust has been used to buy three semi-trailer sized trucks, each equipped with a simulated ambulance cab and a simulated emergency room.

Patients inside these trucks are high-tech mannequins controlled by UI team members in a control room on the truck. From there, they can change the patient’s reaction and coach the providers through various scenarios.

“We’re not looking to replace anyone’s training or teach them how to become nurses or EMTs, we’re looking to add onto or complement what they already know and give them new skills and practice opportunities,” Bunch said.

Helmsley Charitable Trust, a foundation that primarily supports organizations with a focus on health care and medical research, has funded similar patient simulator programs in Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.

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Because of declining populations in rural Iowa, first responders and health care providers can sometimes go long periods before practicing certain medical procedures.

For example, several rural hospitals in the past few years have closed their labor and delivery units, meaning the only deliveries they need to perform are in emergency situations. But if they have little practice with deliveries, providers may not be comfortable if complications arise.

Once they are built, the Simulation in Motion-Iowa trucks will travel to the most sparsely populated areas of the state. Officials hope the program will reach every hospital in every county at least once a year, said Cormac O’Sullivan, fellow co-director of Simulation in Motion-Iowa. He also is a clinical professor of nursing and director of the anesthesia program at the College of Nursing.

A key benefit is that because training will reach professionals where they are, it will increase accessibility.

It also will keep local agencies’ costs low because they don’t have to pay for hotel rooms and other travel expenses.

That’s particularly true for rural EMS providers, who often take the role on a volunteer basis in addition to a full-time job elsewhere. These agencies also don’t have the funding to conduct patient simulations or other high-tech training.

The program is expected to begin by the summer of 2022, after all three mobile simulation trucks have been delivered to UI officials.

The first year of training will be funded entirely through the Helmsley Charitable Trust grant.

Funding will scale back in the following years, and the program is expected to become self-sustaining by the fourth year, O’Sullivan said. Officials also are hoping to tap into philanthropic donations from community partners.

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Before applying for the grant, the co-directors of the program said they completed a needs assessment of hospitals, EMS agencies and other rural health care providers. O’Sullivan said many requested training on pediatric procedures, addressing major traumas, and mental health crises.

It may take some time before the data reflects the program’s impact, but O’Sullivan said he’s confident more training for rural health care providers will result in better patient outcomes in the long term.

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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