These patients aren’t real. Why are they giving birth?

Students partake in a simulation lab in the Arnold S. Goldstein Simulation Laboratories directed by Jamie Musler on September 25, 2018. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Fake people populate a group of labs inside the Behrakis Health Sciences Center on Northeastern’s Boston campus.

These fake people, which faculty and staff from the Bouvé College of Health Sciences refer to as human patient simulators, serve to reproduce a variety of human symptoms as a proxy for real-world healthcare scenarios.

“They can sweat. They can urinate. They can seize,” said Jamie Musler, who directs the Arnold S. Goldstein Simulation Labs. Patient simulators can also mimic heart murmurs, reproduce the sounds of normal and abnormal lungs, and replicate many other symptoms. Some, like the SimMom, can even give birth.

These simulators are one of the tools that faculty use to prepare their students for post-graduation work. Students studying counseling psychology or pharmaceutical sciences, among other health-related majors, participate in staged simulations in the lab, which requires them to put their classroom lessons into practice.

From an observation room that connects all of the labs, faculty and staff speak through microphones. On the other side of a one-way mirror, their voices arise from speakers implanted in the simulators with which the students are role-playing.

Unlike live participants, the simulators allow instructors to create precise, controllable situations that bring to life the concepts students learn in the classroom. The simulators can also display symptoms that aren’t reproducible in or safe for a live participant, such as the abnormal pupil dilation you would see in people who have overdosed on opioids.

“You can’t get real people to do that,” Musler said, “short of using medications.”

There are, however, times when human portrayals are not only more accurate, but more valuable.

Musler described a simulation called “end-of-life critical decision making,” in which a healthcare provider must help family members decide whether to take a loved one off of life support. A simulator serves as the patient, but the wife, brother, and daughter of the patient are portrayed by real people.

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“It might not be something they have to deal with in their practice or their professional work at all,” said Musler of the students, “but we feel like the lessons and the conversations we have—based on the fact that we’ve created this emotion for our learners and our students—add value to the experience.”

The controlled nature of these role-playing scenarios prepares students for real-world situations in which they won’t have control. Specifically, it tests their ability to effectively respond to the unpredictability and nuance of human behavior in the real world, Musler said.

“While there are lots of different things to be learned, in our lab we don’t focus so much on technical aspects of healthcare or technical aspects of learning,” said Musler.

Instead, students and faculty focus on communication, he said, ”because that’s really what’s rich about experiential education.”