What is Simulation? The question that caught me off guard!

I was having an exit interview meeting with one of my graduating simulation fellows, and he asked me an interesting question for his last day. He said, “Dr. Paul, what is simulation?” I thought this was perplexing after a year-long intense study of simulation with us at our Institute! It was quite insightful, though. One of his observations was that there are many ways to do simulations right. He had many experiences throughout the year, visiting other simulation centers, attending international meetings, and teaching with us at different facilities. He realized many different vantage points, missions, visions, and purposes for implementing healthcare simulation.

I took a deep breath, thought about it, and said, “Simulation is a methodology by which we re-create a portion of the healthcare delivery experience with a goal of education and/or assessment of people, groups of people, teams, and/or environments of care.” Then, I drew a rough sketch of my vantage point of simulation that divided into two major subgroups, including methods/modes on one side and primary purpose on the other. I recreated it in the accompanying figure.


I think of the methods or modes of simulation based on the primary simulator technology employed to generate the goals of an intended program. Of course, mixed modality simulations often incorporate a spectrum of technologies.

I don’t mean this list to be exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination, and some may argue an oversimplification. The general categories that come to my mind are as follows:

  1. High-technology manikins generally presents the form factor of an entire human being complemented with electronics, pneumatics, and computer equipment that helps the manikin represent various aspects of anatomy and or physiology. (As you have undoubtedly heard me opine in the past, the word FIDELITY does not belong in any descriptor of a simulator. It muddles the water and confuses the overall strategies associated with simulation, although it is a popular industry buzzword that has somehow worked its way into academic definitions inappropriately.)
  2. Low-technology manikins generally have the form factor of an entire human being but with significantly less electronics or infrastructure to allow physiologic or anatomic changes that occurred during the simulation encounter.
  3. Standardized people/patients, meaning live people playing various roles ranging from patients, family members, and other healthcare team members to help bring a simulation encounter to life.
  4. Task trainers represent a re-creation of a portion of the human being oftentimes created to accomplish goals of completing skills or procedures. Depending on the purpose, they may or may not have a significant amount of augmenting technology.
  5. Screen-based simulations are computerized case or situation representations of some aspects of patient care that change in response to the stimulus provided by participants.
  6. Role-play includes designs that utilize peers and/or select faculty to engage in a simulated conversation or situation to accomplish learning outcomes.
  7. Virtual reality/augmented reality are high technology recreations or supplements that re-create reality through the lens of a first-person engaging in some sort of healthcare situation and have the capacity to change in response to the stimulus provided by the participant or participants.

Primary Purpose/Goals

Again, looking at a given simulation’s primary purpose and goals will lead one to quickly find overlaps and that the categories did not exist in complete isolation. However, for this discussion, it helps to think of the different categories of intent.


When I think of simulation programs primarily focusing on education, it comes down to helping participants gain or refine knowledge, skills, competence, or other measures that allow them to become better healthcare providers. In general, a teaching exercise. This can apply to simulation scenarios that are directed at one person, groups of people (all learning the same thing), or perhaps teams that have learning goals of competencies associated with the interaction between the groups of people similar to that that occurs in the care of actual patients in the healthcare environment.


The simulation encounter is primarily designed as an assessment. This means there is a more formal measurement associated with the performance of the simulation, often employing scoring tools, with the primary focus of measuring the competency of an individual, groups of individuals, or similar to the above teams of individuals functioning as teams. Further, assessment can measure aspects of the environment of care and/or the systems involved in supporting patients and the healthcare workforce.  (For example, an in-situ code blue response simulation may measure the response of the local care team, the response of a responding team, the engagement of the hospital operator, the location and arrival of necessary equipment, etc.)


There are many approaches to the use of modern healthcare simulation in research. At a crude level, I subdivided into looking at the outcomes of the simulation; meaning did the simulation encounter help to improve the participant’s performance? At the next level, you can evaluate if the simulation improves patient care.

The next category is using simulation as a surrogate of the patient care environment but not measuring the effect of the simulation. For example, we might set up an ICU patient care environment for human factors experiments to figure out the ideal location of a piece of equipment, the tone of an alarm, the interaction of caregivers with various equipment, etc. Such an example of simulation often helps to determine optimal environments and systems of care in the primary planning stages or the remodeling of healthcare delivery processes and procedures.

So, the next time I orient an incoming simulation fellow, I will start with this discussion. I am thankful that my fellow who just graduated provided such a simple but deeply probing question to help wrap his arms around the various simulations he has been experiencing over the last year while he studied with us.

Having put some more thought into this, I think it’s a useful exercise for those of us in leadership positions within the simulation world; it is probably good to stop and think about this a couple of times a year to refresh, reset, and ensure that we are remaining mission-driven to our purpose.

Until next time, Happy Simulating!

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