Paid to play

By Jonathan Sher

It may seem quite the hike from Rwanda to Western University in London, Ontario, but for nursing student Amy Olson, the trip takes minutes thanks to the technological wizardry of a professor, RN Richard Booth.

Using a robot that Booth obtained, Olson controls its movements remotely in Africa, navigating hallways to a classroom, then engaging with her Canadian peers and teachers through a tablet mounted nearly head-high. This use of technology is but one innovation from the bubbling imagination of Booth, who can hardly believe he’s paid to play.

“I’ve got the sweetest job in the world,” Booth says. “I get to play with robots. I have three robots sitting in my office right now. I get to see how they work in health care, how we can create nursing roles to work with them, and (how we can grow) nursing roles.”

Booth was a teenager in Guelph in the late-1990s when he caught the techno-bug, creating websites and engaging in multiplayer video games with people across the world. While his parents questioned if he was wasting time, Booth was enthralled and certain the then-clunky connection to an expanding ‘Internet’ was the future.

“It was life-changing when I realized I could talk to people on the other side of the planet,” he says. “I couldn’t understand when I got to undergrad (nursing) why other people didn’t see its potential.”

Booth’s grandmother and aunt had been nurses, and his older sister was training to become one. He pursued nursing too, but not simply because it was in his blood line. He also wanted to make good on the sacrifice of his parents by choosing a well-marked path to becoming a professional. He was an undergrad at McMaster University in Hamilton when Ruta Valaitis, who would serve as a mentor, set him on a course he’s taken ever since.

“She’s the person who, in 2002, said ‘Richard, your career will be (in e-health).’ She saw something in me that I didn’t know. I always liked technology. I always liked innovation. But at that point in nursing, there really wasn’t a creative outlet for that.”

Earning a master’s degree in digital education at Western University in 2007, opportunity arrived the day after graduation and took the form of a job offer from RNAO to create a course on e-health and nursing. RNAO’s support “was huge. (The) world had really moved forward by a quantum leap, and RNAO recognized that,” he says.

Later, Booth earned his PhD at Western, studying the way nurses interact with technology. While some may resist the digital pull, the growth of technology has made resistance futile.

“I guarantee that person who had grumblings 10 years ago has an iPhone in their pocket right now.”

Technology is also changing the way nursing students are taught. As part of course work this academic year, Booth will have students play a medication administration video game. As any gamer knows, the way to improve is through repetition, and the medication game will help students work out the kinks before they deal with real patients or train in costly simulator labs. He expects to roll out a second video game next year. In that one, students will role play as nurses in the home of a patient with advancing dementia. “If you make a poor decision in this game, no one is going to get hurt, and then you can learn from it.”

Booth is also dreaming up ways to use virtual reality so students can practise skills while getting sensory feedback. He wants to create something that will allow students to do virtual intramuscular injections and feel the force on their fingers.

But while his visions are futuristic, his pursuit is practical. For-profit companies are carving out niches in health care with apps that enable genetic testing and virtual consults with doctors, he says. If nurses don’t take the lead, companies seeking profit may shape the future of the profession.

“We’ll essentially be using technology that is created by someone else who doesn’t have nursing or maybe the client’s best interest in (mind). So we need to be advocating, we need to be leading this stuff.”

Jonathan Sher is senior writer for RNAO, the professional association representing registered nurses, nurse practitioners, and nursing students in Ontario. This article was originally published in the November/December 2018 issue of Registered Nurse Journal, the bi-monthly publication of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO).