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BCIT student Anna Pawlak uses the perinatal 3-D model software to see how fetuses move through the birth canal.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

When perinatal nursing instructor Nancy Hewer discovered that her teaching colleagues in critical care had a three-dimensional heart model, she thought, "Ooh, maybe we could create a 3-D fetus and pelvis."

So Ms. Hewer turned to a team of in-house inventors at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, where she teaches, and two months later, her 3-D baby was born.

The 3-D perinatal model made its debut this year in the course Ms. Hewer teaches to registered nurses planning to specialize in labour and delivery – giving her students graphic new insights into how fetuses move through the birth canal, and how adjustments to the mother's position can ease the infant's passage.

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Previously, students taking her course through distance education relied on illustrations in a textbook, or watching her while students in the classroom watched Ms. Hewer demonstrate the process with a doll and model pelvis.

BCIT's 3-D simulation development lab – or the CUBE, as it is known on campus – worked with Ms. Hewer to create the virtual learning tool that students can interact with online. The CUBE had previously developed the 3-D heart anatomy teaching tool and a learning module, using 3-D, videos, animations and images, to allow students in the prosthetics and orthotics program to see the impact that orthotic devices or proper brace fittings have on the body.

Across Canada, colleges and technical institutes are adopting or developing technological innovations that are transforming the way health-care education is delivered.

"One of the benefits of this 3-D modelling is that it allows the learner to both visualize and interact with the material," Ms. Hewer says.

"They can move the 3-D woman around, they can rotate her. They can click on the mouse and rotate the fetus in the pelvis and get an understanding of what we are talking about when we say, for instance, that a baby is in a posterior position [which can result in a long, painful labour]" – and the various ways they can move the mother to help the baby rotate.

It's so much better than a doll and pelvis demonstration, says registered nurse Anna Pawlak, who works in the perinatal unit at Burnaby General Hospital in Burnaby, B.C. "In perinatal nursing, we usually say that you are caring for two people – the mother and then one invisible patient, which is the baby," says Ms. Pawlak, who is completing her postgraduate specialization at BCIT.

"I definitely think it [the 3-D] baby model created a better picture about caring for a fetus," says Ms. Pawlak, who feels the technology would also benefit medical students, doctors, midwives, prenatal instructors and the mothers themselves.

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At Quebec's Cégep de La Pocatière, in state-of-the-art learning labs for hearing instrument specialists, the walls have ears – well, actually, magnified video images of patients' eardrums and ear canals displayed on huge, wall-mounted screens. Results for the patients' hearing tests and hearing aid performance measures are displayed on other big wall screens, along with any additional information the students have documented for their clinical case presentations.

"As a teaching tool, it is great to learn the morphology of the ear, the anatomy of the ear canal, because they are going to be dealing with that on a daily basis for the rest of their career," says audiologist Daniel Bois, head of the Cégep's new, three-year hearing instrument specialist program.

The soundproof rooms for hearing tests are outfitted with the most up-to-date technology, including pediatric equipment, "So we can test babies from birth," Mr. Bois says. This is an emerging area of practice. "Not being able to diagnose children with hearing loss before they are 2 or 3 can result in a massive delay in speech development and learning."

He adds that, when problems are caught early, babies can be fitted with hearing aids in the first few months of life.

The students of Mr. Bois can also keep up with the latest advances through access to weekly educational webinars presented online by the American Academy of Audiology. "The hearing health field has changed a lot in the course of the last few years . . . The preoccupation here it to make sure that we are training the professional of the future, not training students as things were done five or 10 years ago," Mr. Bois says.

Conestoga College's new health and life sciences centre, which opened in 2011, was designed to replicate real-life situations – from the use of sophisticated computer-programmed human mannequins, to labs set up to mimic real environments, such as emergency wards, apartments, assisted-living suites, complex continuing care environments. The human patient simulators are so portable that they can be taken outside and used in realistic mock-ups for first responders.

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The Kitchener, Ont., college educates paramedics, respiratory therapists, occupational and physiotherapy assistants, hearing instrument practitioners, nurses and personal support workers – throwing the gamut of emergency and medical scenarios at them during the course of their training.

"We use technology throughout the building in many ways," says Marlene Raasok, executive dean of health and life sciences and community services at Conestoga.

A key feature of technology-enhanced learning in simulation centres at Conestoga and elsewhere is the use of video to capture the students' performance, she says.

"It's a powerful learning tool. We can replay it and, as we look at the replay, we can actually debrief and say, 'Oh, that's what was happening.' "

Simulation has been around for a long time, Ms. Raasok says. What's new is "that it has become core to how we educate, it's not an add-on." At Conestoga, human patient simulators are used most heavily in the respiratory therapists' program. Upon graduation, they will be working with babies born in distress, caring for patients in emergency rooms and intensive care units or teaching oxygen therapy to seniors. For these situations, the experience gained beforehand in simulators programmed to give realistic responses is invaluable.

Learning through a simulated environment "better prepares students with the competence and confidence needed in the real clinical setting," says Emily Harder, program head at the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology's simulation learning centre.

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"It also provides opportunities for students to experience and manage events that they might not encounter routinely in scheduled clinical rotations, such as cardiac arrest" – without jeopardizing patient safety, Ms. Harder says.

"Technology in simulation continues to expand every year, with companies adding more human functions to the patient simulators that are produced. Patient simulators have heart, lung and bowel sounds, pupils that react to light, and that blink, sweat, cry, bleed and even give birth.

"When properly set up, patient simulators can react to simulated medication dosages and other forms of medical treatment and . . . mannequins are available from newborn through adult in size, that allow for simulations across the lifespan."

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