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A little innovation keeps Wingate PA students on track during pandemic

by Chuck Gordon

In years past, professors in Wingate’s Physician Assistant Studies program taught their Medical Procedures course the old-fashioned way. “A significant amount of the in-person teaching was lecture,” says assistant professor Taylor Fischer, who teaches on the Hendersonville campus. “There was less time spent on actual activity.”

A modification made last year to streamline the course is paying big dividends in the Year of COVID-19. Before they started teaching Medical Procedures a year ago, Fischer and his colleagues on the Hendersonville and Wingate campuses were brainstorming ways to maximize their class time when assistant professor Suzanne Wolf suggested that they record their lectures in PowerPoint for students to watch before each class.

The process worked well, and this summer it’s proved vital. Wingate has been able to teach students to suture wounds, treat abscesses, run IV lines and much more when most other PA programs are simply putting off the course until in-person instruction resumes.

IV task trainer

The instruction might not be occurring in person, but it has been effective. It’s also keeping students on track to enter clinical rotations this fall.

“I’m proud of us for figuring out a way to innovate that is apparently not something other people were interested in doing,” Fischer says. “We’re making sure that students stay on schedule, that they’re not having to be backed up into the fall doing a whole bunch of extra work.”

A week or so before the course began, students received a box from Wingate containing everything they’d need for the class: gloves, suture kits, syringes, gauze, swabs and “task trainers” – prosthetic body parts students use to practice on. For each lesson, students record a video of themselves performing a particular task and upload it to Canvas, the teaching software Wingate uses. Early on the tasks were simple, such as hygienically putting on and removing gloves. They get more and more complex as the course progresses.

Feedback isn’t as immediate as it is in class, but for some students, Fischer says, the process might actually work better. For one thing, there are fewer distractions, and the students know that Fischer is devoting his full attention to their work.

“Since they have to record themselves individually, I almost feel like they’re taking it more seriously,” he says.

Medical Procedures is a pivotal class for PA students, because so much hinges on how they perform hands-on tasks. It’s important, Fischer says, for the course to keep its spot in the program sequence if at all possible.

“It’s one of the classes where the students learn skills that they can immediately apply in their rotations and after they graduate: suturing, splinting, casting,” Fischer says. “Not only that, but those are skills that give them confidence going into their clinical rotations.”

Box of prosthetic forefeet

It might be that Wingate is simply uniquely placed to offer the class despite North Carolina’s stay-at-home order. Having the PowerPoint lessons already recorded and ready to be loaded into Canvas removed one huge hurdle.

Also, thanks to Fischer’s creativity, Wingate can mass-produce low-cost task trainers. Fischer, something of a design enthusiast, has developed the task trainers over the past couple of years, using his own combination of water, glycerine, gelatin and eye shadow to create lifelike forefeet, hands and fingers. His models are considerably less expensive than those that most other PA programs buy.

When it came time to put together the distance-learning boxes, Fischer, Wolf and assistant professors Lindsay Lyon and Kristy Putts had just about everything they needed, except for a way to teach students how to start an intravenous (IV) line.

So Fischer went to work. He made a crude IV trainer out of a rectangular wooden block, some latex tubing and the skin polymer he’s developed. “It doesn’t look like an arm or anything,” Fischer says, “but those little tubes underneath the skin feel like a distended vein. When you insert the needle, it actually feels like you’re puncturing through skin. It works to give them the idea.”

It’s a good example of Wingate PA professors’ collective ability to McGuyver their way out of pandemic-related fixes.

“Not to toot our own horn by any means, but we figured that out,” Fischer says. “I think that whatever challenges we face, we’ll be able to figure them out.”

Learn more about Wingate’s Physician Assistant Studies program.

May 20, 2020