Walk a Mile in My Shoes

Strolling on the Pitt campus, have you ever encountered a blindfolded student using a white cane (and a helper), who is trying to “walk a mile in the shoes” of a person with vision impairment? This exercise, used by the School of Education Vision Studies program, is an example of experiential learning, which allows students to simulate a patient’s medical condition. Why? To heighten empathy and boost sensitivity about patient experiences.

While HSLS resources provide a solid knowledge-base for health sciences students, it is the experiential learning component which can readily facilitate the connection between book content and what patients actually confront.

Wearable technology is one method to help students “live” in a patient’s condition. This technology differs from patient simulators in which students respond to the patient’s health condition. Instead, wearables provide a pseudo-experience of what patients must endure.

Students in any field of Pitt’s health sciences are likely to encounter both geriatric patients and those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). How can a fit, agile 20 year old possibly understand geriatric infirmities? Donning the Age Simulation Suit allows the wearer to feel age-related impairments such as joint stiffness, hearing loss, and reduced coordination. To experience shortness of breath, a hallmark of COPD, students can wear the Empathy Lungs COPD Simulator, with torso constriction and airway mask.

Other wearables use augmented reality to simulate symptoms of mental disorders. Labyrinth Psychotica replicates the disturbing auditory and visual hallucinations of a psychotic episode using a headset and goggles. A simple, less immersive method combines earbuds and YouTube audio to mimic “hearing voices.”

Technology also exists to imitate pregnancy and the sensations of labor. The wearable Empathy Belly Pregnancy Simulator weighs 30 pounds, and allows wearers to undergo 20 of the typical symptoms/effects of pregnancy. Labor pain simulation consists of low-voltage electrodes attached to the abdomen that deliver shocks which mimic classic labor contraction patterns.

The formula is straightforward: library resources plus experiential learning. When students can apply textbook knowledge while walking in a patient’s shoes, who knows where their journey will take them?

~Rebecca Abromitis