Global pandemic highlights advanced technology for medical training
By KIMBERLY MAZILI
Even before COVID, hands-on sonography training was limited by the number and type of patients available, today with a global pandemic those options are even more limited. When training in sonography, what can be absorbed by the student is limited by a number of factors. First, patients move through the clinic rapidly and students have little opportunity to absorb or practice any new skills they pick up during exams. Second, what they learn is subject to patient availability, diversity, and other non-controllable factors. This means that some sonographers will only see certain pathologies for the first time after they start practicing independently. Yet, this doesn’t have to be the case, there are advancements in technologies today that can deliver better training to sonography students and ultimately deliver a better experience for patients.
Back in 2008, I performed my first ever transvaginal ultrasound and it was on an actual patient. She was in for a pregnancy confirmation and, from the look in her eyes, I could tell that she knew I wasn’t totally confident. And while everything turned out okay, it was a tense and uncomfortable experience for both of us.
At the time, almost 12 years ago, training as a sonographer involved either practicing on each other or using very basic simulators. This taught us to recognize when things were going right, but not how to quickly and accurately identify when something was wrong. There is only so much you can learn from examining healthy young adults. For rare abnormalities and pathologies, we were expected to learn from books and during our practical training, it was purely an observation of more experienced sonographers. When I first started practicing on my own I remember being kept awake at night with worry that I missed something and placed a patient’s health in danger.
I have now moved on from sonography and into medical education and I believe that training can, and should be, better. The presence of COVID-19, and its impacts on patient interactions, may speed up this transition but it is a change that should happen anyway.
While I started on very simple simulators, a decade has moved this method on immensely and I for one, am a big proponent of simulation simply because it gives a trainee sonographer the opportunity to learn in a risk and stress-free environment. Medical simulation has made spectacular advances in the last few years and can now mimic a wide range of patient interactions. There are now ultrasound simulators which use real ultrasound images and recreate both the feel and motion of both transabdominal and transvaginal ultrasounds. Trainees can learn to handle the tools of their trade quickly and confidently without placing themselves and patients at risk of infectious diseases, or even discomfort. As trainees progress and become more intermediate sonographers, they can still use simulation to improve the efficiency of procedure times and refresh their memory on how the markers of trisomies present on ultrasound.
Improving the depth of training for sonographers prior to actual hands-on practice prepares them to get more from their patient interactions. For instance, if a trainee learns something new during clinical practice they can go back and practice that new skill on the simulator until it is retained. Not only gaining precision skills, but also boosting their personal confidence.
During an exam, a sonographer must be completely comfortable with the instruments they are using, the exam they are performing, and recognizing what they see on screen. It takes practice to develop the right ‘eyes’ for sonography and the more quickly the skill is developed, the more quickly sonographers can become advocates for their patients. After all, sonographers spend the most time with the patient, and after the physician has seen and discussed the results of the exam, they are the ones who will help the patient process whatever news, good or bad, that the exam has revealed.
In addition, confident sonographers can take time to focus on harder-to-teach soft skills that are essential for positive patient interactions - skills that can’t be taught with technology. Over my near-decade of practice, I learned that listening was one of the most important aspects of my job, and I believe having good listening skills improves both patient outcomes and the overall patient experience. A confident sonographer equals a happier patient.
As an obstetric sonographer, I was witness to the entire range of human emotion and was often present at a turning point in many people’s lives. In these moments the most important aspect of my job was to be there for my patient, to listen and be human.
In short, patients deserve the time and attention it takes to have a positive experience, and with fewer and fewer opportunities to train and practice, we need to prepare sonography students to get the most of what limited interaction they can. Learning and practicing via the use of advanced simulators in all fields of medicine, is a necessary action, and a good investment for any medical establishment.
Remember, sonographers are often the first medical practitioner that each new parent visits. Their professionalism, confidence and reassurance are vital in many decisions for that child going forward. Essentially advanced sonographers are playing a major role in the future generations - so we need to make sure that trainees are ready for success!
Kimberly Mazilii works as a hospital sales specialist specifically in the area of sonography and obstetrics for Virtamed. Kimberly is a Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer who previously owned her own sonography business in Tampa, Florida.
VirtaMed is the world leader in medical training using mixed reality simulators for minimally invasive diagnostic and therapeutic interventions in general surgery, ob/gyn, orthopedics, and urology. Combining virtual reality graphics with original instruments and anatomic models for realistic tactile feedback. VirtaMed partners with medical societies, such as the Collège Français des Chirurgiens Orthopédistes et Traumatologues (CFCOT), and medical device companies. To learn more, visit www.virtamed.com