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Virtual simulation program to train home health workers

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awards UofL nursing researcher $870,000 to develop the project

As the population ages, the need for professional caregivers to provide in-home services for ill and disabled patients is increasing. As a workplace, patient homes can present more challenges than other health care settings because they can harbor hazards such as tobacco smoke, cluttered hallways and rooms, inaccessible bathrooms, rodents, bugs and more. 

Thanks to a three-year, $870,000 grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, University of Louisville School of Nursing Shirley B. Powers Endowed Chair in Nursing, Barbara Polivka, PhD, RN, and researchers from The Ohio State University will develop and test a virtual simulation training system to help home health workers recognize, assess and respond to risks.

“We know that 60-percent of all injuries experienced by home health aides occur inside patient homes, and are the result of patient handling tasks, medical devices, equipment and other factors related to the in-home environment.” Polivka said. “Our goal is to equip health professionals with the skills to evaluate the homes in which they work for hazards to their own health and safety, and to recognize when and how they need to adapt their tasks or their surroundings to protect themselves.”

During the first two years of the project, the team will conduct focus groups and interview several stakeholder groups including nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists, home health care aides, agency educators, nurse managers and health and safety experts. Based on this information, virtual scenarios will be created.

The virtual simulation design will require trainees to actively participate. In addition to non-playing characters, such as pets and family members that will have scripted actions and responses, the program also may incorporate avatars or graphical representations of other participants like instructors. The program will represent various rooms in homes or apartments with a range of hazards and distractions such as clutter incorporated throughout, requiring those engaged to make an assessment of the risks and then choose how to respond. The research team will use the final year of the project to test and evaluate the simulation program.

“If we can minimize injuries on the job, we can minimize costs for home health workers and for their employers who must account for things like work sick leave and workers’ compensation,” Polivka said.

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