How Iowa nursing students are learning to 'act' the part: BTN LiveBIG

Tim Schoon/ University of Iowa

How Iowa nursing students are learning to 'act' the part: BTN LiveBIG

A nurse and an actor walk into an exam room…

No, this isn’t the start to some hacky joke. Rather, it’s a very serious – yet completely fabricated – scenario that is part of an innovative program at the University of Iowa that pairs students in the university’s Department of Theatre Arts with students from the College of Nursing to prepare them for clinical practice.

The program, recently profiled on Iowa Now, presents nurses-in-training with a host of scenarios that they’ll encounter throughout their careers, from physical medical issues, such as a pregnant woman suffering from preeclampsia, to psychological and emotional cases, such as teenagers dealing with depression, substance abuse or family stife.

“Our goal with these exercises is to increase nursing students’ confidence and improve their skills when it comes to patient evaluations, especially difficult patient evaluations,” says Susan Van Cleve, professor and director of the UI’s Primary Care Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Program. “We want to make sure our students are competent.”

The opportunity to interact with actors who present authentic patient emotions and concerns in a supportive learning atmosphere is invaluable to nursing students, who are eager to put classroom theory into action. For theater students, the payoff is just as important: They are forced to come up with new lines in real time and with real people, not other trained actors.

The program represents more than just an effort to expand the experience of nurses before they enter professional practice, according to Alan MacVey, chair of the Department of Theatre Arts. It is part of a broader push by the University of Iowa to cultivate interdepartmental collaboration and to introduce the arts into non-traditional settings.

For the nursing students, these exercises are a safe space to hone their craft and learn from their patients’ experiences in real time.

“When you’re learning, you’re bound to make some mistakes,” said Jennifer Wittman, a graduate student in the Doctor of Nursing Practice program at Iowa. “This is a good place to make those mistakes, much better than to make them with a real patient. Plus, we get instant feedback, which is really important in terms of understanding how you could improve as a nurse.”

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