Pioneering California University Launches New Virtual Reality Pilot to Train Aspiring Nurses

National University uses federal grant to offer innovative, immersive community health care simulation experience

LA JOLLA, CALIF. (February 3, 2021) — National University, a nonprofit institution celebrating its 50th anniversary of serving veterans, educators, and working adults, today announced it has launched a new virtual reality training initiative that is providing nursing students with hands-on clinical experiences in a simulated environment. The new simulation scenarios allow students to practice and hone skills needed on the job without compromising the health and safety of patients or students during COVID-19.

“As communities grapple with restrictions required to keep individuals and families safe during the pandemic, health care educators are finding new ways to simulate the on-the-job experiences and complex social and patient interactions that occur every day in health care settings,” said Dr. Gloria McNeal, associate vice president for community affairs in health at National University. “This work is about augmenting our traditional methods of nurse education with innovative ways of providing opportunities for practicum and instruction despite the limitations imposed by the current pandemic.”

With funding from a two-year, $200,000 grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, this pilot program is designed to increase access to quality health care in underserved communities. The Department of Nursing at National University’s College of Professional Studies is one of just five programs nationwide to receive the competitive award.

In addition, Las Patronas, a philanthropic organization dedicated to supporting community services in San Diego County, awarded the program nearly $50,000 to purchase approximately 70 virtual reality headsets, and the San Diego County Board of Supervisors awarded $25,000 to cover the cost of software and programming for the virtual reality headsets.

Already emerging as a popular technique for health care training programs, a growing number of health care education programs are adopting virtual and augmented reality simulations as a way for aspiring health care professions to continue their studies given health and safety guidelines and restrictions on in-person gatherings during COVID-19.

As an online alternative to the university’s traditional 8-week community health course, a pilot group of National University nursing students will spend 120 hours acting as avatars in a simulated environment, performing tasks such as listening to lung sounds, assessing wounds, obtaining blood-pressure readings, monitoring oxygen levels, and providing them with instructions for medical adherence and follow-up. An instructor virtually monitors each student’s training progress and can customize the patient’s response to ensure a unique experience.

This simulated training focuses on serving vulnerable communities, such as the local homeless population, as a way to improve the medical infrastructure focused on underserved populations. Throughout the course, students collaborate with peers from other disciplines, such as public health, on projects to address that community’s most pressing health concerns.

The simulated training is now being offered to eight cohorts of students that will total 80 students by the end of the grant period in 2022. To date, about 40 students have completed the training. National University plans to expand the simulated training to other health care courses in the future.

“At a time when higher education is responding to disruptions in the way we educate and prepare students for the workforce, this is a powerful example of how institutions can help provide continuity of learning,” said Dr. David Andrews, president of National University. “Even in a field as complex as nursing and community health, faculty and academic leaders are finding new way ways to replicate the complex clinical, interpersonal, and decision-making skills required to ensure quality care.”

The pilot program builds on National University’s history of innovative health care programming led by Dr. McNeal. For example, she was pivotal in securing funding to launch the Nurse Managed Clinic, which was recognized by the American Academy of Nursing as an Edge Runner Model of Care that increased health care access for residents of underserved communities through the use of cutting-edge telehealth technologies. She also led in the design and implementation of the University’s Vets to BSN program, which creates an accelerated pathway for active duty and veterans interested in nursing careers.

About National University

National University, a veteran-founded nonprofit, has been dedicated to meeting the needs of hard-working adults by providing accessible, affordable, achievable higher education opportunities since 1971. As San Diego’s largest private nonprofit university, NU offers over 75 online and on-site programs and flexible four-week classes designed to help students reach their goals while balancing busy lives. Since its founding, the NU community has grown to over 25,000 students and 180,000 alumni around the globe, many of whom serve in helping industries such as business, education, health care, cybersecurity, and law and criminal justice. Learn more at NU.edu.

This project is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under grant number U4EHP39474, the Nurse Education Practice Quality Retention Simulation Education Training Program for $200,000, for which 64 percent was financed with nongovernmental sources. This information or content and conclusions are those of the author and should not be construed as the official position or policy of, nor should any endorsements be inferred by HRSA, HHS or the U.S. Government.