A lot of emphasis is placed on shaping the minds of future healthcare professionals at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax.

Medical trainees use a technique called simulation-based learning, which provides a low-stress environment to develop skills before entering real life situations.

“Simulation-based learning is where we work to recreate clinical scenarios, or clinical encounters, for trainees who are learning to interact with patients or do procedures,” explains Dr. David Tang, QEII surgeon and surgical residency program director.

“So we take pig hearts and things like that,” adds Dr. Andrew Fagan, cardiac surgery resident, “and we can practice the basic elements of an operation there so you’re not learning how to do the basic parts in an operation on a real person.”

Simulation learning has been taking place for several years in Halifax and more than 4,000 medical trainees pass through the training labs each year.

“In the past, in the operating room, it would have been watching a surgeon, learning how they do it and then slowly taking over parts of the operation and learning as you went,” explains Dr. Fagan,

The students use models, computer based programs, virtual reality, along with animal organs. For example, if trainees are working on a cardiac arrest model, educators can alter the scenario at any time to make the situation more realistic.

“We simulate an arrest with computer monitors and things like that,” says Dr. Fagan, “We have the whole team run a code on those patients and that way when it actually happens in real life, these less common scenarios, people are prepared and know what to do.”

Simulation learning involves more than just practicing on models, it gives trainees an insight into the everyday working life of a surgeon.

“There are a lot of things we do in medicine that involve skill acquisition,” explains Dr. Tang, “That can be talking with a patient, so communication skills and professionalism, and breaking bad news, obtaining consent for people, working in a collaborative sense with other health care teams and professionals.”

These labs offer trainees a chance to problem solve and decision make without the stress of working on an actual person.

“It also allows you to make mistakes in a safe environment,” says Dr. Fagan, “If I’m learning to do something in the actual operating room, there’s no room for me to make a mistake, so the surgeon is very cautious and you learn a lot by making mistakes because you realize how things can go wrong.”

“For the trainees in particular, for them it’s really about developing competence, developing confidence, so that when they’re treating people and patients on the wards and in the emergency rooms, and in hospitals they’ll be able to do that more effectively and more safely,” adds Dr. Tang,