Northern nursing students going where no man has before

Jodi Schellenberg
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Northern nursing students are learning through new technology that is straight out science fiction.

The College of Nursing at the University of Saskatchewan has started a new way to teach students in the northern part of the province -- since instructors cannot go up to the northern communities, they are using a robotic presence.

“It is all about the idea of trying to make education as accessible as possible,” said Heather Exner-Pirot, Strategist for Outreach and Indigenous Engagement for the College of Nursing. ”The motto now is kind of learn where you live. This is particularly important for aboriginal rural communities because it is expensive to move down south, they are less likely to succeed if they move down south and have to be away from their family and support networks.”

The program, through Northlands College, is unusual because it uses a combination of teleconferencing and a robotic presence.

“There is nothing new about distance education but what is new here is it is being applied to the health profession, which is rarely done,” Exner-Pirot said. “The College of Nursing at the U of S is the only one using these robots for an education component. They are used a lot for neurosurgery, stroke assessment and ultrasounds but we are the only ones using it for education which is a big deal.”

Carol Bullin, the main professor of the course explained she logs into the robot from a control room on the U of S campus. In the control room, she has a joystick, mouse and screen to control the robot at a remote site.

“It was sort of like Star Trek, I thought when they first told me about it,” Bullin said.

Through the robot, Bullin can see and hear what the students are in their clinical assessments. The only thing she is unable to do is the hands-on demonstrations so she has a teaching assistant to help with the physical assessment.

“For example, if a student didn’t know where to put their hand on the patient or where to listen to their lungs, through the robot I can talk to them and show pictures, but I can’t show them,” Bullin explained. “I have someone there who can help me and show the students physically where they can put their hands or listen to the lungs.”

The students quickly adapted to a robotic presence in the classroom.

“That was our biggest surprise that they accepted the robot so quickly,” Bullin laughed. “Then they were going for coffee they would ask, ‘Oh Carol, can we pick you up a coffee?’ Then they would realize it would be difficult to do that. It was so real.”

The robotic presence was a little odd at first, the students said.

“It was a little different to get used to at first,” said La Ronge student Martin Roy. “After you have a couple classes with it, you get used to the presence being there because there is always someone on the screen.”

“When we first started and got the robot in there, it was a weird feeling,” added Ile de la Crosse student Bernice Tesjardin. “It was weird to have that robot coming around but now we are used to it. It just takes time to adjust.”

Since the majority of the northern students have families and responsibilities, it makes it difficult for them to move south for university, which is why the program is such a success.

“It provides the opportunity for students that can’t attend university in Saskatoon or Regina the opportunity to attend school and still have access to their professors,” said La Ronge student Tara Glover.

The northern program offers the students the same standard of education students get in Saskatoon, Prince Albert and Regina, Exner-Pirot said.

The majority of the northern students would not have moved south to take the course. Glover said she would not have gone into the nursing program if she had had to move.

“If there are opportunities to stay in your home community or one that resembles where you live because it feels more like home, they have a better success rate,” Glover said. “It is easier to make friends and get to know people in a smaller setting than it is on a university campus with thousands of students.”

Roy and Tesjardin are thankful they were able to stay close to home for school.

“This is a really good opportunity to take this extra advanced training in the north,” Roy said. “It has helped me… My kid is six and I don’t want to take him away from his family so I wouldn’t have taken it down south.”

Although Tesjardin would have went south for the course, she explained the opportunity to take nursing in Ile de la Cross has given her the ability to stay at home. She lives in Dylan and drives and hour and a half to go to school each day.

“It gets tiring sometimes but at least I can be at home everyday with my family instead of leaving them and going south,” Tesjardin said.

All the students would recommend the program to other potential nurses in the north.

“I am actually recommending it to a few of my cousins who are finishing school this year,” Roy said. “I’ve been telling them there are lots of opportunities for nurses. We are actively telling people how good the course is, how good we are doing and everything we can.”

Bullin is glad the program will give more opportunities to northern students.

“The real purpose of the remote presence is to provide accessibility to education to everybody regardless of geographical location and that is the bottom line,” Bullin said. “They should still have access to the same quality of education as if they lived in Saskatoon. I like to look at it as equal opportunity to a quality education.”

Offering the program in the north might also help address some of the nursing shortages.

“There is a health professional shortage which is a big problem and then there is unemployment in the northern communities where they import southern labour,” Exner-Pirot said. “Here is a cause where the professionals in a northern community can be from the north.”

Since the students also have experience with the robots, it will help them working as nurses in the north.

“The nurses learn to use the robots when they are students, then they are going to want to use the robots when they are practising,” Exner-Pirot said. There isn’t going to be any hurdle of trying to adapt to the technology or figure it out. These nurses, more than any other in the province, are going to be completely immersed and completely comfortable with these robots.”

She said it will make it easier when they have to use the robots with professionals from Saskatoon or Regina.

“It is a pathway of care from the education into the practice, which hasn’t happened before,” Exner-Pirot said.

Both Bullin and Exner-Pirot are looking forward to the future of this technology.

“It is just the beginning and really the sky is the limit in terms of this,” Bullin said.

Organizations: College of Nursing, Northlands College, University of Saskatchewan Prince Albert

Geographic location: Saskatoon, Regina, La Ronge Dylan

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