Nothing produces anxiety and dread quite like nursing school sim lab. Sure, your exams can be terrifying if your’e not prepared, but sim lab is different…and what makes it different is that it’s happening in real time IN FRONT OF YOUR PEERS! The fear of looking stupid, doing the wrong thing, “killing” your simulated patient, looking like a fool in front of your professor are all very valid…but with a little advance preparation and the right attitude, you can turn a dreaded experience into a valuable learning opportunity. Here’s how:

First of all, what is nursing school sim lab?

Sim lab (or simulation lab as it’s actually known) is the HOT THING in nursing school education these days. In sim lab, you’ll have a fake patient who, depending on how much money your school has shelled out, will talk, breathe, have a pulse, have breath sounds, bowel sounds, heart sounds, reactive pupils….pretty much everything you’d expect from a “real” patient. This patient will have veins you can insert an IV into, urethras that can be catheterized, lungs that can be intubated and stomachs that can be decompressed with an NG tube. Basically, like a real patient except they won’t ask you for pudding every half hour or demand warm blankets for their eight family members (kidding…sort of!).

What happens in nursing school sim lab?

In sim lab, your patient will have some kind of problem and you, the awesome nurse, have to figure out what it is and how to intervene. You’ll have all the equipment, meds and supplies available that you need to keep your patient alive…telemetry monitors, BP measurements, O2 saturation levels, meds, fluids, oxygen and so on and so forth.

You will be grouped with fellow students and basically walk into a patient’s room while the patient starts to fall apart right in front of you. That’s pretty much sim lab in a nutshell!

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How to survive nursing school sim lab

First of all, relax. Even if you theoretically “kill” your fake patient, you’re not going to fail the lab. Sim lab is simply a learning and practicing environment. So take a deep breath and reeeeeee-lax. Got it? Ok, good.

Next, you might be wondering what it is you’re supposed to DO in sim lab. You’ll be grouped with four or so other students (which, in my opinion, is too many…but that seems to be the general habit of most schools). One of the challenges of sim lab is knowing what to do when there’s a whole gaggle of you trying to get in there and save the simulated patient’s life. It can get a little chaotic.

I’m going too tell you a little trick that will make sim lab SO EASY for you. Are you ready?  Use the nursing process. Say what? You mean that acronym they introduced in first semester that you didn’t really find all that valuable? Yep…that one. Use the nursing process in sim lab and you cannot go wrong. I promise.

To begin, your patient will be lying in bed and possibly saying something like, “I don’t feel well.” The very first thing you’re going to do is ASSESS the patient. It’s the first step in the nursing process, and it’s your first step here. If no one else steps up to the plate to lead the simulation, then by all means consider this your invitation. Delegate to someone to put the patient on the monitor and get a set of vitals. Get your stethoscope out and listen to the patient, look at their work of breathing, listen to their heart…gather as much information as you can. 

Next, you want to diagnose the patient’s problem. This is where your nursing diagnoses come into play. Is the patient’s O2 saturation 84% and you don’t hear lung sounds on one side, then you might diagnose him with “ineffective gas exchange.” Now, here’s where it gets tricky…you also kinda need to know what the patient’s medical diagnosis is…in this case you are highly suspicious that the patient has had a pneumothorax. Now, you get on the phone and call the doc…use your SBAR!

What’s next in the nursing process? Plan! Come up with a plan and then implement it. In nursing school world, these are two separate steps, but in real life they happen almost simultaneously….you basically think up your plan as you go along. In this case, you’ll definitely want to get some oxygen on that patient, maybe even via ambu-bag…and you’ll have one of your team members get the chest tube set up ready for the doc while someone else should call for that stat portable chest x-ray the doc ordered. 

Do you remember what the final step is in the nursing process? Evaluate! You need to assess your patient again and see how well your interventions worked. That’s it!

Now, of course, your patient may develop other problems as you go along…or, if you don’t recognize their original problem quickly enough they’ll deteriorate until they code. If they code…follow your BLS (check for a pulse and start compressions ASAP!)

And here’s the best tip of all…if you don’t know what to do…then ASSESS! That’s it! That’s all you need to know to not just survive sim lab, but absolutely annihilate it.

Get this on audio in podcast episode 86.

Do you have a sim lab story to share? Let us know in the comments below!


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How to survive sim lab in nursing school