Augmented Reality and Safe Spaces for Exploring Medical Errors in EMS

The tones drop. You get to the rig, lights and siren scream out. You’re on your way to a 5-month-old baby. Dispatcher says its an “unknown medical” call.

You get on scene and are met by frantic family members. You and your partner get into the house and the mother is crying. In between her sobs she’s begging you to save her baby. When you finally get to the child, you see that it is seizing. Then it stops. There’s nothing. No movement and no breathing.

This is the first time you’ve ever handled a call like this. 

You’ve only been an EMT for two weeks.

Training wasn’t like this. It wasn’t this real.

cpr baby dark tone select focus of finger

EMS professionals are good at their jobs. They are dedicated to what they do. Saving lives, comforting people, and staying calm in emergencies are all part of the daily routine. Training is intense and extensive. 

But it can be better. 

Medical errors occur in every medical field. The nature of the business means that there is high stress and amazingly difficult decisions must be made, sometimes very quickly. Since EMS professionalized its standards decades ago, the medical error rate has dropped significantly. 

But it can always be better. 

A 2015 study from Johns Hopkins reports that medical errors account for more than 250,000 deaths annually, putting them as the third leading cause of death in the US. It is safe to say that if there are that many medical errors in a controlled hospital environment, then there are certainly medical errors in the uncontrolled, unpredictable pre-hospital setting.

Medical error concept: stethoscope and heart shaped object, close-up

Every EMS professional, whether an EMT or paramedic, should have a no-error goal in mind every time they go on a call. The way to get there is through training and experience.

Augmented reality can help reach that no-error goal.

While you may think of augmented reality as technology relegated to video games or something that is only relevant to kids, you need to understand that it is much more than that. EMS has always been about integrating new technologies, and augmented reality is one that is a game changer.

Virtual reality has been used in EMS for years now, but has been relegated to places that don’t quite give EMS professionals a realistic environment. Even with VR headsets, professionals are in a controlled setting, often in a classroom with fellow trainees and instructors. This is not real life. It is important that EMTs and paramedics train in situations that simulate, as closely as possible, what they will experience on a daily basis. 

Augmented reality can do that. No longer are we destined to be stuck in classrooms talking about what it will be like on a scene. We don’t have to simply listen to an instructor tell us that our make believe patient is developing symptoms. 

“The patient has a blood pressure of 90/50,” says the trainee.

“You now notice that there is significant bruising and discoloration in the lower left abdomen,” responds the instructor.

Every EMS professional knows the drill. There is a dummy in front of them and the instructor changes the scenario as we do our initial and ongoing patient assessments. We respond the way we know they want to hear. But does this really fully prepare us? Will this type of training help reach a no-error goal when it comes to patient care?

It is not likely that it will.

With augmented reality, we can now see those symptoms develop right in front of us. Not only will it be in front of us, but it can take place in a field, a house, or in the back of the ambulance while it is moving down the road. EMS professionals will be responding to the situation just like they would on a real call. That lower left abdomen bruising and discoloration from the above scenario will look real and we can respond to possible internal bleeding. Our adrenaline may increase because we are really there and we are much closer to performing as we would on a real call. 

This is augmented practice that introduces a new level of realism that just can not be experienced with a manikin.

Why does this matter?

The more we train in situations that mimic real life scenarios, the less likely we are to make medical errors. The fear and nerves of working in high pressure situations can be greatly reduced by training with augmented reality. Sometimes better patient care is more about avoiding bad decision making than it is about making every decision perfectly.  

 Patient assessments can be done while  seeing changes in the virtual patient’s clinical condition right in front of you. 

Vital signs change, you respond. 

A patient stops breathing. You make the next set of crucial decisions and actions.

Make a wrong call and the virtual patient worsens. 

That’s okay. 

It was training and you’re learning. now you are much less likely to make that error again because you’ve seen in real time what happened. 

The training is  more real than anything you’ve experienced before thanks to augmented reality. Now you are better  prepared to make time sensitive decisions in those real life situations.

With augmented reality, EMS professionals can stay on top of their game. Medical knowledge and treatments may change over time but great training is always at the core of doing better for patients.

The future of EMS simulation  training has arrived. With augmented reality, training is more realistic than ever. It can prepare students and personnel help to reduce medical errors. 

Ultimately, augmented reality can help you do your best work in moments where it counts the most.


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