Cashing out by buying in – How expensive does a mannequin have to be to call a simulation “high fidelity?”

This critique on simulation fidelity was written by Alia Dharamsi, a PGY 4 in Emergency Medicine at The University of Toronto and 2017 SHRED [Simulation, Health Sciences, Resuscitation for the Emergency Department] Fellow.

How expensive does a mannequin have to be to call a simulation “high fidelity?”


That was the question I was pondering this week, as our SHRED theme this month is simulation in medical education. In my 4th year of residency at University of Toronto, most of my simulation training has been in one of our two simulation labs, using one of our three “high fidelity” mannequins. However, even though the simulation labs and equipment have been very consistent over the past few years, I have found a fluctuating attentiveness and “buy-in” to these simulation sessions: some have felt very real and have resulted in a measurable level of stress and urgency to improve the patient’s (read: mannequin’s) outcome while others have felt like a mandatory hoop through which to jump in order to pass a rotation.

It should not come to anyone’s surprise to note that in Emergency Medicine, simulation is a necessary part of our development as residents. Simulation based medical education allows trainees to meet standards of care and training, mitigates risks to patients, develops clinical competencies, improves patient safety, aids in managing complex patient encounters, and protects patients [1]. Furthermore, in emergency medicine, simulation has allowed me to practice rare and life-saving critical skills like cricothyroidotomies and thoracotomies before employing them in real-time resuscitations. Those who know me will tell you when it comes to simulation I fully support its use as an educational tool, but there does still seem to be an ebb and flow to how much I commit to each sim case that I participate in as a learner.

During a CCU rotation,  I was involved in a relatively simple “chest pain” simulation exercise. As the circulating resident, I was tasked with giving the patient ASA to chew. In that moment I didn’t just simulate giving ASA; I took the yellow lid from an epinephrine kit (it looked like a small circular tablet) and put it in the mannequin’s mouth asking him to chew it. I did not think much of it until our airway resident was preparing to intubate, and the whole case derailed into an “ airway foreign body” scenario—to the confusion of the simulationists sitting behind the window who didn’t know how that foreign body got into the airway in the first place. Why did I do that? I believe it’s because I bought into the scenario, and in my eyes that mannequin was my patient, and my patient needed the ASA to chew. The case of a chest pain—although derailed into a difficult airway case by my earnest delivery of medications—was in the context of a residency rotation where I was expected to manage the CCU independently overnight. That context allowed me to buy-into the case because I knew these skills were transferrable to my role as a CCU resident. My buy-in has had less to do with the mannequin and the physical space and everything to do with how the simulation fit into the greater context of my current training.

There has been discussion amongst simulationists that there should be a frame shift away from fidelity and towards educational effectiveness: helping to engage learners, providing framework and context to aid them in suspending their disbelief, and providing structure to apply the simulation to real-time resuscitations in order to enhance learner engagement [2]. The notion of functional fidelity is one that resonates with me as a budding simulationist; if a learner has an educational goal and is oriented to how the simulation will provide the context and platform to learn that goal, the learner may more easily “project fidelity onto the simulation scenario.” That is, the learner will buy-into the simulation [2].

 So how do we facilitate buy-in?

We can start by orienting learners meaningfully and intentionally to the simulation exercises. [3] This can be accomplished by demonstrating how the concepts from the simulation are transferrable to other contexts which can allow the learners to engage on a deeper level with the simulation and see the greater applicability of what they are learning [2].  We can’t assume learners understand why or how this exercise is applicable to them. A chest pain case for a senior resident in emergency medicine has very different learning outcomes than the same case for an off service junior resident rotating through the ER; the same can be said for a resident primarily working in the hospital or working in an outpatient clinic. Tailoring case objectives to learners specifically provides an opportunity to provide relevant skills to learners in the context of their training, giving them a reason to buy-in to the scenario session. Moving beyond “to learn…” or “to outline the management of…”, I would advocate that specifically outlining objectives for the level and specialties of participating learners will help them see the employability of the skills they gain in the simulation.

We can also use those specific objectives and context we start the simulation session with to foster a more directed debrief. The post-simulation discussion should not only cover medical management principles but also specific discussion about what learners would do if they encountered a similar situation in their specific work environment (clinic, ward, etc), transferring the learning out of the simulation lab and into real world medical practice.

If we are going to see simulation as a tool, let’s see it as one of those fancy screwdrivers with multiple bits, and stop trying to use the screwdriver handle as a hammer for every nail. No one mannequin, regardless of how expensive and how many fancy features it has, can replace the role of a thoughtful facilitator who can help learners buy-into the simulation. If facilitators take the time to orient the learner to their specific learning objectives and then reinforce that context in the debrief discussion, they can increase the functional fidelity of the session and aid learners in maximizing their benefit from each simulation experience.



  1. Ziv, A., Wolpe, P. R., Small, S. D., & Glick, S. (2003). Simulation-Based Medical Education. Academic Medicine, 78(8), 783-788. doi:10.1097/00001888-200308000-00006
  2. Hamstra, S. J., Brydges, R., Hatala, R., Zendejas, B., & Cook, D. A. (2014). Reconsidering Fidelity in Simulation-Based Training. Academic Medicine, 89(3), 387-392. doi:10.1097/acm.0000000000000130
  3. Issenberg, S. B., Mcgaghie, W. C., Petrusa, E. R., Gordon, D. L., & Scalese, R. J. (2005). Features and uses of high-fidelity medical simulations that lead to effective learning: a BEME systematic review. Medical Teacher, 27(1), 10-28. doi:10.1080/01421590500046924


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