College of Nursing gives students 'spooky' assignment to stress patient safety

October 29, 2013

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Senior nursing majors Rachel Westernik, Vanessa Spamer and Celeste Garruto are horrified by what they have just seen in the Penn State College of Nursing’s Simulation Laboratory.

And that’s just how Chris Garrison, instructor in nursing and Simulation Laboratory coordinator, planned it.

For Halloween week, Garrison and co-worker Kristal Hockenberry, research technologist in the College of Nursing, have transformed part of the lab into a “Hospital Room of Horrors.” Upon entering, students encounter a scene guaranteed to send chills down the spine of any health care professional: A bedridden patient (actually a simulation mannequin) is surrounded by potentially life-threatening hazards, including unauthorized medications, soiled linens and used IV syringes.

The challenge for students is to find as many “horrors” — medical errors — as they can. At the end of the week, the student who finds the highest number wins a prize.

As Garrison hands Garruto a clipboard holding the patient’s physician orders, Spamer approaches the head of the bed to assess the patient’s condition. Her mouth curls in distaste.

“Look, there’s food here!” she said, pointing to a bag of potato chips on the bedside table, then to a sign taped to the wall above the patient’s bed. The sign reads, “Patient Is NPO,” an instruction to not give the patient oral food and fluids. (NPO stands for nil per os, Latin for “nothing by mouth.”)

“And what are these cigarettes doing here?” Spamer said. “Isn’t he supposed to be on oxygen?” Westernik, meanwhile, checks the patient’s IV bag, only to discover that he is being administered an IV medication to which, according to his chart, he is allergic.

Such scenarios would indeed be horrifying — and possibly fatal — to find in an actual patient care situation. But here in the Nursing Simulation Laboratory, the approach serves as a valuable teaching tool.

“The goal is to increase the students’ awareness of patient and environmental safety issues,” Garrison explained. “The focus of the exercise is on using their observation skills to recognize safety issues and correct mistakes in a simulated environment, so that they’ll be prepared to do so in a real health care setting.”

The contest is open to all junior and senior nursing students, all of whom have already had clinical experience, Garrison said.

“The whole purpose of the Simulation Lab is to give students hands-on clinical experience that includes identifying problems,” said Garrison, whose role includes assisting other nursing instructors in developing simulation experiences that are consistent with the curriculum. “This exercise just takes it to a higher level.”

Last Updated November 12, 2013