By: 3 July 2012

A virtual reality maternity unit, which will allow student midwives to practise their communication and clinical skills, has garnered national award recognition for a Nottingham midwife teacher.

The maternity unit built on The University of Nottingham’s ‘island’ in Second Life – an online 3D virtual world – has been developed by Jenny Bailey, a midwife teacher in the University’s Academic Division of Midwifery, as a teaching tool for her students.

Her innovative work on the project, and her commitment to innovation in midwifery education, has led to her being shortlisted for two awards at this year’s Royal College of Midwives (RCM) Annual Midwifery Awards.

Jenny said: “I am delighted to have been shortlisted for two 2012 RCM national awards, one of which is my virtual maternity unit. I hope that the virtual maternity unit can be used by students to enhance their communication skills, and to discuss and simulate management of care for women in labour.”

The work has been done in collaboration with colleagues Colleen McCants and Fay Cross in the University’s Information Services department who helped bring Jenny’s idea to virtual life and with support from Dr Bob Hallawell in the Division of Nursing.

The University of Nottingham Maternity Unit in Second Life is designed to represent a range of similarities found within birthing units, with a birthing room that can be set up according to the type of birth that a mother has requested – including birthing pool, gym ball and inhalation analgesia (gas and air).

The computer simulation allows students to use avatars to role play through a whole range of scenarios, many of which they may not otherwise encounter during real-life clinical practice.

With the midwife teacher taking on the part of the expectant mother, students can be put through their paces to assess how they react to every aspect of the experience, such as the clinical decisions they make or how well they communicate.

Jenny added: “Part of a midwife’s role is to be able to provide unbiased information to women so they can make informed choices for their journey through pregnancy and childbirth, and that means sometimes students need to alter or adapt their language depending on the situation, to get the information across.

“Childbirth is a life-changing experience and some women can feel very vulnerable when they are in hospital, so much so, that it can affect their labour. Students need to learn very quickly how to put women at ease and gain their trust.

“Using avatars removes some of the embarrassment which can be experienced in real role play and is intended to enhance clinical practice rather than replace it.”

The Second Life simulation is so realistic that students can virtually practice clinical skills such as administering pain relief, checking the mother’s contractions and taking her pulse and blood pressure, with the results of tests being displayed in the midwife’s control panel on screen. They can also offer other support and reassurance, even sitting beside the mother on the floor and rubbing her back.

The tutor, as the expectant mother, plays a leading role in the labour including deciding the results of various tests and when the baby or placenta is delivered.

After the virtual birth, the student midwives learn the procedures used during the first minutes and hour of a baby’s life to carry out the Apgar score to assess baby’s wellbeing or to record the weight or to establish feeding.

The simulation has led to Jenny being shortlisted in the Philips Avent Award for Innovation in Midwifery category of the Royal College of Midwives awards, which recognise and celebrate the successes and innovation of all its members.

Her work on blended learning – using a varied approach to learning that includes podcasts, clinical practice and online e-learning materials – has also seen her shortlisted in the category Johnson’s Baby Award for Excellence in Midwifery Education.

Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, said: “This demonstrates that there is wonderful and ground-breaking work being done by midwives and I congratulate Jenny on being shortlisted for this award.

“Midwifery practice is always moving forward and innovating. This shows that if we give midwives the resources and the freedom to do this, the result is better services for women, babies and their families.”

The awards lunch will be held at the Grand Connaught Rooms in Covent Garden. Journalist and broadcaster Natasha Kaplinsky is presenting the awards. 

Video about the virtual Maternity Unit can be viewed at