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Harnessing technology to create clinical training efficiencies

By Professor Zubair Hanslot, Provost of the University of Bolton



When the University of Bolton’s Vice Chancellor, Professor George Holmes, envisioned a sector-leading new medical sciences institute, he led us into a whole new world as a university and as the providers of the very best experience available.

Here I outline what the Vice Chancellor and the University of Bolton wants to deliver, and how technology is helping us to get there.

We’re all familiar with the challenges our NHS is facing.

Arguably one of the biggest is staffing shortfalls and a reliance on overseas or expensive agency staff.

As things stand, we are seemingly unable to recruit enough staff with the right level of clinical skill to fill vacant positions.

This needs to change.

The recently published NHS workforce strategy talked about the need to accelerate the process ‘from classroom to clinic’.

In Bolton, we’ve spent the last few years working on a plan to do just that.

At the University of Bolton, we’ve been working in partnership with Bolton NHS Foundation Trust to deliver a new £40m facility that will transform the way future clinical healthcare staff are trained.

At the heart of this new training facility is state-of-the-art technology that offers new, advanced learning experiences, and which can generate efficiencies in training that were previously unviable.

This technology can reduce training costs and increase training volume, help contribute towards clinical placement hours, and plug skills gaps by providing as true-to-life environments as is possible in a training scenario.

We need more of this kind of technology available nationally if we are to address some of those NHS challenges, and help training providers deliver on some of the targets outlined in the NHS workforce strategy.

So, what kind of technology is our new training facility, the Institute of Medical Sciences, home to, and how is this enhancing the training experience?

When it opens next year, the facility will be kitted out with six purpose-built simulation suites and 4D rooms.

Each simulation suite can be used for student ‘placements’, with the hours there contributing practice hours.

The quality of learning on offer in these suites really will be unrivalled, and as close to real world as it can be, with mock wards and life-like simulated patients.

These are highly technical and can be programmed to simulate human physiological processes, such as having a heart attack, or even contractions and actually deliver a baby.

While the experiences of students on traditional placements are dictated by the patients in the ward at any one time, the simulated environment can manufacture scenarios so that students can practise how to respond.

Not only does this enable students to practise specific clinical skills, but it also allows for much more efficient assessment.

For example, Anatomage Tables – 3D anatomy and virtual dissection beds – offer a brilliant opportunity here.

These interactive screens present learners with human 3D anatomical structures, allowing for a more advanced level of exploration than a traditional cadaver dissection alone could offer.

It also means that the type of ‘body’ can be selected, so students are not limited in what they can physically see.

For example, they can select from a bank of anatomical structures, if, say, they want to see a patient of a specific gender or ethnicity at a specified age who died of heart disease.

In the near future, artificial intelligence will undoubtedly extend the capability of these beds and resources further still.

The facility’s 4D rooms will be an immersive environment, and use projectors, sounds, lighting and “smellovision” through canisters mounted on the wall to mimic realistic scenarios – such as road traffic accidents – that students wouldn’t typically be able to experience while training.

It’s also been hardwired for augmented reality, so learners can put goggles on and the real world is overlaid with rendered visual prompts.

This is one of the first applications of augmented reality in training and collaborative learning in our area.

Perhaps most impressive, though, is the ability to plug in to this environment remotely, granting access to those who cannot physically be in Bolton.

The Institute of Medical Sciences is linked up to the SuperJanet Network, the digital infrastructure that over 900 learning institutions in the UK are connected to.

It means that someone located in another building with the Janet Network can plug into the immersive learning on offer at IMS, provided they are equipped with just a headset.

This suddenly makes it viable for individuals anywhere in the UK to access one of the country’s leading clinical training environments.

The North West alone is home to some remote areas, like the Lake District, where it might be difficult for a community nurse to physically come into the facility to complete a CPD course, for example.

They could go to their local college instead, if it had just one AR headset, and plug in remotely.

It also makes it easier to do collaborative training exercises with lots of different organisations, such as the emergency services, all at once.

For example, fire, ambulance and police crews could do joint training locally to them, rather than taking a full day off duty to travel to Bolton.

I said at the start of this article that we need more of these facilities nationally if we are to address NHS challenges.

This type of technology can make clinical training more realistic, more viable, more cost-effective, and ultimately, means more people can be trained.

However, there are no obvious funding streams to support with the procurement of this type of equipment.

We received £20m of Levelling Up Funding towards this £40m plus facility to help build the Institute of Medical Sciences, but what really makes it sing is the technology in it, and as a University we are fronting that cost ourselves.

Given the quality of training this technology can deliver, training providers need more funding support in this area.

I also invite other training providers, NHS trusts elsewhere in the country, and potential technology partners to come and have a look around our facility once it is operational.

There is no substitute for seeing first-hand the merits of the technology and how it is applied in practice, and we hope more training providers and NHS trusts are able to follow in our footsteps.

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