Central Maine Community College instructor Christina Solak-Goodwin works with a student from her home in Harpswell on Tuesday morning. She was working with a sophomore named Paige with a hypothetical patient, going over their vital signs, labs, history and other factors in making a diagnosis. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Dr. Brenda Petersen was in a faculty meeting when the first email arrived.

A hospital the University of Southern Maine partners with was suspending clinical work for nursing students immediately due to the COVID-19 virus.

The associate dean for nursing at USM and her staff knew they had to act quickly.

For the following two weeks, including the week of spring break, Petersen and a USM task force implemented a new program to give students the clinical experience necessary to complete their studies and graduate in May.

Instead of treating patients under the supervision of hospital staff, nursing students are receiving their training through virtual clinical simulation.

Throughout Maine and the rest of the country, nursing programs have turned to virtual training to replace bedside treatment of patients during the final semester before graduation, Petersen said.

At Central Maine Community College in Auburn, Kathy McManus, chairwoman of the nursing program, said the community college system in Maine has also implemented the virtual clinical simulation training.

Central Maine Community College instructor Christina Solak-Goodwin works with a student from her Harpswell home Tuesday morning. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“We believe what we’re doing is going to meet the needs of our students so they can all graduate,” she said.

Petersen cited two main reasons why hospitals suspended clinical training — the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPEs) and the demands on health care teams in treating patients who have the coronavirus.

The virtual clinical simulations meet state guidelines for the graduating seniors, but Petersen concedes that the lack of human contact is not ideal.

“The students are concerned. The faculty is concerned. We’re all concerned,” Petersen said.

“The students have gone through so much,” she added. “They’re grieving the loss of graduation, the loss of significant events.”

But students have received some level of on-site clinical training before the coronavirus crisis forced schools to adjust their teaching methods. The new system appears to be working, and administrators have seen positives with the virtual simulations.

Central Maine Community College instructor Christina Solak-Goodwin helps Paige diagnose a hypothetical patient Tuesday morning from her home in Harpswell. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“The advantage of the virtual training is the amount of time the faculty can spend with the students,” McManus said. “It meets the needs of the students in the coronavirus era.”

In an attempt to provide real-life experiences, professors provide each student with an unfolding list of medical maladies for each virtual patient. Each nurse reacts to various situations and unexpected events to develop a plan of care under the guidance of their professors.

“It is not identical as being at the bedside with a human,” Petersen said. “But it increases their critical thinking.”

“They learn how to manage care for their patients,” McManus said.

“The students receive more one-on-one interactions with their professors,” McManus said. Developing care plans allow students to learn how to think like a nurse. Under the simulations, each student receives up to 30 to 60 minutes of comprehensive review each week with members of the faculty.

Following graduation, the students must take the board exam to earn their license. It will be up to hospital human resource directors to determine whether the virtual training the students from the Class of 2020 received will meet the needs of each hospital.

Petersen said students might require “a longer orientation,” but expects few other obstacles.

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