Health students such as nurses and counsellors will do more digital learning and simulation scenarios because of COVID-19, as educators work to harness the potential of technology and safeguard against another pandemic or disruptive event.

Health educators had to move courses online as lock-down meant most students could not do face-to-face lessons or clinical placements. While providing online lessons and tutorials was relatively easy, health educators say they need to develop better, more interactive technology that supports the all-important clinical experience.

Ara Institute of Technology Chief Executive Tony Gray says it is investing in simulation technology for its applied health courses. It has already developed simulations of birthing scenarios for midwifery students and others that simulates scanning body parts for radiology students. “Clinical placement is all about instilling confidence that you have learnt what you need to deal with different scenarios. Simulation training can give that confidence in combination with face-to-face clinical experience,’’ he says. “Our health courses are applied so students will always need that hands-on experience with patients. What we are looking at as a result of COVID is how do we strike the right balance of remote learning and clinical placement and, increasingly, simulation training.”

Ara nursing, midwifery and medical imaging students are based at Te Papa Hauora’s Manawa building which has a high-tech simulation suite. Gray says there is no substitute for students learning as part of a team in a real health care environment, but technology can enhance this and replace it in the likely event of another pandemic of disruption to learning such as a natural disaster.

The University of Otago, Christchurch trains undergraduate medical and postgraduate nursing students. Dean Professor David Murdoch says it is using simulation more, both with latest technology such as manikins and with actors who play patients with various conditions. But there is no substitute for clinical experience.

“During the COVID crisis we were very grateful for our relationship with the Canterbury DHB which meant our final year medical students could work in the healthcare system and the DHB worked hard to allow all our students back in clinics as soon as it was safe.”

Professor Letitia Fickel is Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Canterbury’s College of Education, Health and Human Development. She says the pandemic has prompted reflection on how it educates health students, including social workers, counsellors, psychologists and public health experts.

“We showed that we could make online learning work and saw it as a stop-gap (during the lock-down). Now we are thinking if this is likely to be the future – because this is not likely to be the last zoonotic pandemic we experience – what new tools do we need to create, what technology do we need to develop… how do we best prepare our graduates for a future which has changed because of the pandemic?” For example, during the lock-down counselling, social work and psychology students did consultations online – as did working professionals. “If this is going to continue, questions need to be asked about the way we educate these students. How do you build rapport, how do you build relationships in the digital space? Do the skills you learnt when face-to-face still work in that digital space?”

Fickel says the pandemic showed health education programmes need to take a more global view.  “This has shown there are global health matters we need to be more attentive to… The One Health view. The relationship between the environment and human wellbeing need to be more front and centre. We will need to really examine our programmes to make sure that is there.”

She says Te Papa Hauora can play a pivotal role in the innovation of health education because it connects Christchurch’s educators and healthcare providers. “Manawa was set up to be a health innovation hub. We have a dedicated education unit and can have those conversations among the professional groups.”