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Last Updated: Monday, 28 January 2008, 09:23 GMT
Virtual pregnancy helps train midwives
By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

A pregnant lady
The scheme hopes to help women have normal births
Jessica Tate has a normal pregnancy and is on course for a normal birth.

Like many pregnant women Jessica is slightly anaemic and she wants a home birth.

What makes Jessica very different however, is that she is in fact a virtual pregnancy.

Put together by two midwifery lecturers Jessica is a computer programme designed to give students an early chance at practical diagnosis.

Caring for Jessica

Using graphics, video and sound, midwifery students are taken on an imaginary journey through the pregnancy of Jessica Tate - from its earliest stages, to early labour.

The package includes sections in which the student can use a mouse to move over computer-enhanced photo images of the 'pregnant' abdomen.

As the mouse moves over the image, a picture of the uterus and foetus becomes clearer, revealing information gradually in the same way that would happen if the student used their hands to examine the woman.

There is a big issue in the western world with 'problem' births and it doesn't have to be like this
Susanne Darra

Throughout the programme, the students assess Jessica's progress and are also able to click on to 'hot words' for up-to-date background knowledge.

There are also video clips of interactions between the 'midwife' and Jessica in which the student is asked to assess good or bad communication skills.

Now the programme, which has been running at Swansea University since 2004, has won a top award.

Image from programme
The computer programme follows Jessica through pregnancy

Judges say they are so impressed with it that they hope to see the programme rolled out to other universities.

Dame Karlene Davies, general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives, said: "This was a wonderful use of technology to explain the process of a pregnancy very clearly and simply.

"We were hugely impressed by the programme which will make a great difference to the midwifery students who will be using it," she added.

Promoting normal births

Susanne Darra, one of the midwifery lecturers who helped create the programme with colleague Marian McIvor, said it had been important to them that they not only helped the students to learn through Jessica, but that they also used her to promote the idea of 'normal' births - deliveries with the minimum intervention.

She said it was important to challenge the students as well so added that Jessica's pregnancy had not been all plain sailing.

"We have a policy in our midwifery team of promoting a 'normal' birth and we wanted to present a 'normal' birth, but with a few challenges.

"So we decided that she would be on her own a lot of the time socially as her boyfriend is working away a lot.

Marion McIvor and Susanne Darra
The creators of the programme

"And that about half way through the pregnancy she would be quite tired and would have mild anaemia.

"Jessica wanted to have a home birth so the students had to think about that. She also had a bit of a false alarm and thought she was going into labour, but she wasn't.

"She was a bit worried about that."

"We just wanted to cover a few issues," said Ms Darra.

"We wanted to keep things normal, but challenge the students about what could go wrong," she added.

"There is a big issue in the western world with 'problem' births and it doesn't have to be like this. We have a strong trend to alert people to problems, but most of the time things turn out fine."

Giving students practical skills

Ms Darra said that other departments at the university had virtual training programmes and that this had inspired herself and Ms McIvor to write one for midwifery.

It made me feel as if I was sitting alongside the midwife
Michelle Bassett

"We wanted to expand our tool box and have another sort of interactive learning, not just power-point," she said.

Michelle Bassett, a third year student, said the 'Jessica' learning module had been very useful.

"I thought the 'Jessica Tate' programme was fantastic. It made me feel as if I was sitting alongside the midwife.

"This was so helpful for me going out to do real home visits. It also made it easier for me to deal with a real life situation," she said.

Now the programme is being offered to other midwifery schools in Wales.

Mary Newburn, of the National Childbirth Trust, said: "We're delighted to see this innovative approach to midwifery education. It's so important that understanding normal birth is at the centre of midwives' training.

"This fun approach to learning has the potential to make a real difference for ensuring women get good support in labour."

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