A Publication of WTVP

Physician and teacher Heather McLauchlan, MD, is a relative newcomer to Peoria, but she’s already involved in the newest thing to hit medical education in years: life-like mannequins.

McLaughlan, who is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, settled in central Illinois in 2003. “I’d recently completed my residency in pediatrics at the Boston Combined Residency Program at Children’s Hospital and Boston Medical Center. My husband was offered a teaching position at Illinois State University in 2002, so after completion of my residency training, I began my job search. I was quite lucky that the university was looking for a pediatrician,” she said.

Through her work at UICOM-P, McLauchlan was named a Caterpillar Faculty Scholar, a collaboration between the university and Caterpillar, Inc. “The mission of this faculty development project is to provide clinical faculty the opportunity to learn about research, collaboration, teaching methods, and leadership. For 16 months, six faculty met once a week with leaders from the university and across the Peoria community to talk about topics relevant to these goals. One week we learned about effective methods of evaluation and feedback. Another week we talked about clinical research. During these 16 months, each scholar was expected to complete a project of his or her choosing. Our group had very diverse interests, ranging from clinical research projects to designing educational curricula.”

Her project involved the newly purchased METI Human Patient Simulators (HPS). “In mid 2005, UICOM-P purchased two HPS—adult and pediatric,” she said. “These machines are life-sized, realistic, computerized mannequins that are used to simulate a variety of physiologic circumstances. They breathe air, have a heartbeat, have pulses you can feel, have eyes that blink, and have pupils that react to light. At baseline, the HPS is meant to simulate a normal, healthy adult or child. However, with a click of the mouse, the HPS can get very ‘sick.’ The idea is that a group of users—medical students, nurses, doctors, etc.—will come to the lab to practice caring for ‘patients’ in a variety of acute emergencies. For example, the HPS can simulate the scenario of a child who’s bleeding internally after a car accident. If the users recognize that the child is sick, based on historical information and his vital signs, they’d be expected to treat him with aggressive fluid resuscitation, blood transfusion, and get him to surgery as soon as possible. However, if they miss the diagnosis and don’t intervene in time, the child will get sicker and sicker. And yes, the HPS can ‘die.’ Luckily, if this happens, all it takes is one more mouse click to bring the HPS back to life, and the group can try again to save their patient.”

While the concept may sound radical, McLauchlan pointed out that this type of simulation has been used in other industries for many years. “The most obvious example is the aviation industry, where pilots are expected to train for many hours on a simulator before they’re allowed in a real airplane. In medicine, however, the concept is relatively new, but it makes a lot of sense. In theory, practicing on a simulator will help doctors, nurses, and doctors in training to respond more effectively when real emergencies happen. In addition, working on the simulator can be useful for team building—certainly an important concept in emergency management.”

Specifically, McLauchlan’s project involved the use of the pediatric HPS with third-year medical students. “Our third-year students spend only eight weeks on pediatrics. Because children are generally quite healthy, the chance that a student will be able to observe, much less participate in, the care of a critically ill child is reasonably slim. However, we all feel it’s very important for our students to learn pediatric resuscitation skills. My study is looking at whether the pediatric HPS can help teach medical students some basic pediatric resuscitation skills as a supplement to their current third year pediatrics experience. I have the students complete two cases on the HPS, then do a teaching session where we watch a videotape of their performance. They then complete two additional cases. Although I don’t have the numbers yet to draw any definitive conclusions, it looks like the students are better at certain skills on the second two cases, implying that they learned something from their experience. One thing is for sure: so far, the experience has been a lot of fun for me, and I think the students have enjoyed it as well,” she said.

From what she’s seen so far, it’s the people who make UICOM-P a remarkable medical school. “During my residency, I didn’t even know a medical school existed in Peoria. However, during my time here, I’ve met some truly tremendous people. Some are doing cutting-edge research. Others are outstanding teachers. Others are excellent bedside clinicians. Some manage to do all of these things. But more important than that is the fact that so many people here are humble, approachable, and committed to excellence. This I find truly admirable,” she said.

McLauchlan said as with so many aspects of life, that which is the most challenging is often the most rewarding. “I’m constantly challenged by my patients and students. Each patient I see is a privilege to care for, but each patient also presents questions and challenges. Sometimes things that seem simple present the most challenging clinical problems. For example, I saw a child with a mild asthma exacerbation, spoke with the child and family about asthma, educated them about the warning signs of respiratory distress, and prescribed an albuterol inhaler. Every pediatrician has done this countless times. However, after learning that the family had no money, no insurance, no current medical card, and a house that recently flooded, I saw the situation was much more complicated. With a little luck, many phone calls, and some medication samples, this child was on the road to recovery, but it wasn’t as straightforward a situation as I initially assumed. My job is to help families keep their children healthy and to care for them when they get sick, but the challenge is in the details of accomplishing that task.” IBI