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In a hospital run by the company Banner Health in Phoenix, mannequins are burping, bleeding and giving birth. They are fake patients and it's a fake hospital to train doctors and nurses. It's about to open, and Peter O'Dowd of member station KJZZ got a preview.

PETER O'DOWD: At this hospital, even a reporter can play the role of doctor.

Hi, Thomas.

Mr. THOMAS McTOOL (Mannequin): How are you?

O'DOWD: Oh, I'm pretty good. How are you feeling?

Mr. McTOOL: Oh, not very good. I'm kind of sick today.

O'DOWD: Thomas McTool is a middle-aged man made of plastic and rubber tubes. He came to the ICU two days ago complaining of chest pains, and now he's hooked up to machines that measure his breathing and blood pressure. In a room around the corner, a real person controls the mannequin's voice and vital signs.

Mr. McTOOL: Oh.

Unidentified Woman #1: Thomas.

Mr. McTOOL: Oh.

Unidentified Woman #1: What's wrong with you? Thomas?

Mr. McTOOL: Oh.

Unidentified Woman #1: Somebody help. Something's wrong with my husband. Get in here.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Unintelligible) post-meds.

Unidentified Woman #1: Thomas.

Unidentified Woman #2: Mr. McTool?

Unidentified Woman #1: I don't know. He was talking and he just…

Unidentified Woman #2: Listen. Oh, boy. He's…

O'DOWD: When the technician stops McTool's virtual heart, the hospital staff jumps into action. Suddenly, it's hard to tell the difference between real life and make-believe.

Unidentified Woman #2: I'm losing a pulse.

Unidentified Woman #1: Somebody help. Somebody help.

O'DOWD: Don't worry, Thomas McTool survives this heart attack, but he'll probably have a few hundred more in the next year. Full-scale training classes for nurses and doctors across Banner's seven-state network are about to begin here. And few private companies have made such an expensive investment to advance simulation training. Mark Smith is the doctor in charge here.

Dr. MARK SMITH (System Director, Banner Health): The beauty of it is that it's what we call a consequence-free environment. It's much better to learn here and lose a patient than it is on the floor when you're taking care of live patients.

O'DOWD: This building was once a functioning hospital. The former emergency department is lined with identical patients. Plastic infants sleep in real baby warmers in the newborn ICU. And in the operating room, a patient is perpetually spread out on the table. Smith says 60 of his plastic people can suffer from a medical menu of ailments.

Dr. SMITH: Infection, septic shock…

O'DOWD: Upper GI bleed, pulmonary embolisms…

Dr. SMITH: …overdose of medication.

O'DOWD: …breech birth.

Unidentified Woman #3: My water broke.

O'DOWD: Yeah, they can do that, too.

Unidentified Woman #3: Oh, I'm having contractions.

Ms. DENIELLE HEADLEY (Training Nurse): Okay, honey, I need you to breathe through it, okay? We're going to…

O'DOWD: Training Nurse Denielle Headley is helping this rubber mother-to-be give birth. And by the way, the baby really is coming out of the mother's virtual uterus. Headley says nurses know the patient isn't, well, real, but they sweat and shake with adrenaline anyway.

Ms. HEADLEY: And I say, you see? This is exactly how you will feel and what you will do in the code.

O'DOWD: Then after a third or fourth try, Headley says the nerves just melt away.

Ms. HEADLEY: They become more refined in their motions and movements as they do things. And they're able to respond even quicker.

O'DOWD: That's why it's hard to find a medical school or hospital that doesn't praise this technology. Studies show residents who work on simulators develop skills faster than those who learn from more traditional methods. Randolph Steadman runs the simulation lab at UCLA. He's a fan of the mannequins, but he's honest about their limitations. And there's at least two worth mentioning. Let's say you're practicing delivering a baby.

Dr. RANDOLPH STEADMAN (Director, UCLA Simulation Center): Who comes out blue from the cesarean section. We don't have plastics that can turn blue on command.

O'DOWD: It's possible that one day, a plastic baby can turn blue on command. But that will probably make the next problem worse: money. Banner dumped more than $12 million into its training hospital. An inexpensive mannequin costs 40 grand. But Steadman says there is little evidence that shows this technology actually saves the much-quoted 44,000 to 98,000 lives thought to be lost each year to hospital errors in the U.S.

Dr. STEADMAN: That has been the Achilles heel of the technology.

O'DOWD: So why dump money into this talking dummy…

Unidentified Woman #3: My water broke.

O'DOWD: …if you're not sure the simulated delivery will save a mother or her child's life?

Ray Mitchell is the dean of the Georgetown University Medical School. He says doctors can innovate on a budget with similar results. For example, you can build a rib cage with chicken wire, and then practice sewing sutures with beef lung from the butcher.

Dr. RAY MITCHELL (Medical Education Dean, Georgetown University Medical School): That is satisfying to the curmudgeon in me, to say the Lexus or the BMW may not always be the best. It's how you use the tools you have.

O'DOWD: Banner administrators in Arizona say they're satisfied their investment will eventually pay off. That's because they believe the monetary cost caused by medical errors will go down. And, they add, a safer patient is ultimately a happy returning customer.

For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd.

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