Review date: 1969 to 2003, 34 years.
Background and context: Simulations are now in widespread use in medical education and medical personnel evaluation. Outcomes research on the use and effectiveness of simulation technology in medical education is scattered, inconsistent and varies widely in methodological rigor and substantive focus.
Objectives: Review and synthesize existing evidence in educational science that addresses the question, 'What are the features and uses of high-fidelity medical simulations that lead to most effective learning?'.
Search strategy: The search covered five literature databases (ERIC, MEDLINE, PsycINFO, Web of Science and Timelit) and employed 91 single search terms and concepts and their Boolean combinations. Hand searching, Internet searches and attention to the 'grey literature' were also used. The aim was to perform the most thorough literature search possible of peer-reviewed publications and reports in the unpublished literature that have been judged for academic quality.
Inclusion and exclusion criteria: Four screening criteria were used to reduce the initial pool of 670 journal articles to a focused set of 109 studies: (a) elimination of review articles in favor of empirical studies; (b) use of a simulator as an educational assessment or intervention with learner outcomes measured quantitatively; (c) comparative research, either experimental or quasi-experimental; and (d) research that involves simulation as an educational intervention.
Data extraction: Data were extracted systematically from the 109 eligible journal articles by independent coders. Each coder used a standardized data extraction protocol.
Data synthesis: Qualitative data synthesis and tabular presentation of research methods and outcomes were used. Heterogeneity of research designs, educational interventions, outcome measures and timeframe precluded data synthesis using meta-analysis.
Headline results: Coding accuracy for features of the journal articles is high. The extant quality of the published research is generally weak. The weight of the best available evidence suggests that high-fidelity medical simulations facilitate learning under the right conditions. These include the following: providing feedback--51 (47%) journal articles reported that educational feedback is the most important feature of simulation-based medical education; repetitive practice--43 (39%) journal articles identified repetitive practice as a key feature involving the use of high-fidelity simulations in medical education; curriculum integration--27 (25%) journal articles cited integration of simulation-based exercises into the standard medical school or postgraduate educational curriculum as an essential feature of their effective use; range of difficulty level--15 (14%) journal articles address the importance of the range of task difficulty level as an important variable in simulation-based medical education; multiple learning strategies--11 (10%) journal articles identified the adaptability of high-fidelity simulations to multiple learning strategies as an important factor in their educational effectiveness; capture clinical variation--11 (10%) journal articles cited simulators that capture a wide variety of clinical conditions as more useful than those with a narrow range; controlled environment--10 (9%) journal articles emphasized the importance of using high-fidelity simulations in a controlled environment where learners can make, detect and correct errors without adverse consequences; individualized learning--10 (9%) journal articles highlighted the importance of having reproducible, standardized educational experiences where learners are active participants, not passive bystanders; defined outcomes--seven (6%) journal articles cited the importance of having clearly stated goals with tangible outcome measures that will more likely lead to learners mastering skills; simulator validity--four (3%) journal articles provided evidence for the direct correlation of simulation validity with effective learning.
Conclusions: While research in this field needs improvement in terms of rigor and quality, high-fidelity medical simulations are educationally effective and simulation-based education complements medical education in patient care settings.