Huntsville Hospital, the second largest hospital in Alabama, is a 941-bed hospital that serves as the regional referral center for north Alabama and southern Tennessee. In recent years, the hospital has expanded its service throughout the region with the development of Huntsville Hospital Health System, making it the third largest publicly owned hospital system in the nation with more than 1,800 beds and 12,000 employees.
In the last three years nearly 8,000 area first graders have been “admitted” to Let’s Pretend Hospital. The simulated hospital has been a joint venture between The University of Alabama in Huntsville’s (UAH) College of Nursing and Huntsville Hospital for 31 years. Let’s Pretend Hospital (LPH) is a program designed for first graders to help reduce the fear and anxiety they may experience if admitted to the hospital or visit the emergency room.
This year, LPH will “admit” nearly 3,000 first graders from area public, homeschool and private schools from Monday, March 28 to Friday, April 1, from 8:30 a.m., to 2 p.m., in the UAH College of Nursing’s Learning and Technology Resource Center (located on the third floor). “Super Heroes” is the 2016 LPH theme.
“Let’s Pretend Hospital is one example of the strong partnership between Huntsville Hospital and the UAH College of Nursing. It is a win win endeavor for both institutions and the community. Our nursing students very much look forward to this event each year and are able to demonstrate the college’s core values of integrity, inspiration, caring, excellence, and wellness when working with this pediatric population during the event,” said Dr. Marsha Howell Adams, Dean of the College of Nursing.
Since 2014, UAH nursing faculty members Christy Bacon (Clinical Instructor), and Melissa Lonnergan (Clinical Assistant Professor), have been charged with the responsibility of coordinating the highly popular community health program.
Bacon and Lonnergan extend most, if not all compliments to UAH junior and senior nursing students for successfully running the well-oiled machine that has been Let’s Pretend Hospital (LPH) for more than three decades.
The week after LPH ends, the UAH College of Nursing faculty and students start planning for the next year with event evaluations. “Our evaluation chair creates a detailed evaluation of the operations during the week-long project. We use the assessment to see how we can improve LPH in the future,” said Bacon. “But the real work begins for us at the start of the spring semester. In order to create the ‘Let’s Pretend Hospital’ model, we need a management team of students to oversee the project. These roles include CEO, security, art, staffing, entertainment, evaluation, photography, and human resources. Our budget varies from year to year, but we generally need approximately $5,000 in supplies to run LPH and approximately 45 students per day,” Lonnergan added.
The simulated hospital allows UAH nursing students the opportunity for hands-on-interaction with “sick” first-graders. Additionally, nursing students apply developmental theory in teaching children about nursing and health care. Youngsters visit the pretend emergency room, X-ray/laboratory, operating room, patient’s room/Miss Molly, play area, and safety room.
The process for selecting the student LPH management team begins during the first week of class, when Lonnergan and Bacon distribute applications to students in the community health course. Students are asked for role preference during LPH, at this time they can also apply for the management team.
“It is important that our students are not only strong academically but have strong interpersonal skills,” said Bacon. “It is surprising how much experience our students have with leadership and management. We have students who have served as platoon leaders in the military, overseen operations at an orphanage in Central America that housed 600 children, and worked with youths in the Boys and Girls Club. Many have remained active with various children’s camps and worked as leaders here at UAH helping fellow students.” Educational benefits are gained by both UAH nursing students and area first graders according to UAH faculty members Bacon and Lonnergan. “All of our students get to utilize critical thinking skills when working at LPH. They learn important customer service skills when working with first graders, parents, and teachers. They learn how to work as a team and operate as a group,” said Lonnergan.
The simulated hospital experience serves as an invaluable teaching tool where students have the opportunity to make critical decisions regarding quality of care and safety, and the importance of therapeutic communication skills. “In the clinical setting, it can be difficult to expose all of your students to the skills and patient care you would like them to encounter every time they are in clinical,” noted Lonnergan. “However, the simulated environment allows us to choose the patient that the student will be caring for.”
Beyond the clinical aspects of nursing, UAH nursing students act as guides making sure first graders get off the bus safely and escort them inside the building to await their “hospital” visit. Each room has a senior nursing student who works as room manager to ensure quality is maintained in the delivery of information to the children. The command desk inside the main hall of the simulated hospital is staffed with the management team. “These nursing students operate as the central station to deal with any issues that may arise with the visiting first graders. The management team also runs a debriefing session at the end of each day. This is where students discuss with their peers any problems that have occurred during LPH and recognize individuals and situations that went well,” said Bacon.
“What we as educators and future nurses have learned is that we can make the hospital less scary for children,” said Bacon. “We have gotten letters of thanks from many parents whose children have attended LPH and then had to be in the hospital. They tell us that their child was not afraid because they had been to “Let’s Pretend Hospital” and they knew what to expect.”