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A novel approach to teaching nursing students about opioids

Professors created a graphic novel and simulations to prepare students for treating opioid overdoses.


The idea of meeting your audience “where they’re at” is one a group of nursing professors has taken to heart in a mission to help future nurses handle opioid overdoses. This group, dubbed the “Sim Team,” developed what they call an innovative new approach to teaching nursing students about the opioid crisis by developing a purpose-built graphic novel.

“Sometimes in a classroom we’ll see students who … you feel are distant from you,” says Sue Coffey, an associate professor in the faculty of health sciences at Ontario Tech University. Dr. Coffey says they created the graphic novel, titled We Need Some Help out Here, to avoid the “same old, same old” course readings. “We often talk within our simulation team this idea of ‘teaching the ghost.’ Am I teaching the way I was taught … or am I teaching to the learners I have right in front of me, and [in] the way they learn?”

The Sim Team consists of professors from Ontario Tech, Durham College, Nipissing University and York University. Dr. Coffey says they focus on “creating learning opportunities that are real, that prepare our graduates for the real world, that reflect the phenomena that they’ll experience.” They do this through simulations that go hand-in-hand with the graphic novel.

Leslie Graham, a professor in the joint nursing program at Durham and Ontario Tech, says the book serves as a pre-briefing and prep tool for students before they go into a simulated overdose. Some students even pored over the novel a few times instead of digging into textbook readings. “Anecdotally, we did find that their performance improved after reading the graphic novel,” she says. “Their performance in the simulation was much stronger.”

An excerpt from We Need Some Help out Here, an educational graphic novel on opioid use and abuse for health-care professionals in training. Illustration by Riely McFarlane and Kagan McLeod.

We Need Some Help out Here depicts several scenes related to opioid use and abuse. The creators say its key messages are that healthcare providers know very little about the life of the person they are treating and shouldn’t make assumptions; that it’s important for bystanders to respond in emergency situations; and that because the opioid crisis is so widespread, an overdose could happen anywhere.

Dr. Coffey and Ms. Graham say their students are seeing the opioid crisis in their own lives and the training hits close to home for some learners. “Once you see something you can’t unsee it,” Dr. Coffey adds. The graphic novel and subsequent simulation exercises are “a very small harm-reduction approach. But I think there is so much work to do.”

Arlene de la Roche, who also teaches in the Durham-Ontario Tech program, says the graphic novel helps with students’ confidence during a simulated overdose. The opioid crisis can seem overwhelming, she says, but a recent simulation with hundreds of students in attendance has given her hope for the future nurses who’ll be dealing with it.

“How sad that this is going on every day, somewhere in our community and in our province and we might not know how to respond. But after [the simulation], I feel like at least 350 students out there know what they need to do.”

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  1. Arlene de la Rocha / October 29, 2019 at 11:44

    Dear Laura,
    Thank you so much for posting our important work in the current issue of University Affairs/Affaires universitaires. I wanted to share with you and everyone else who reads about our novel approach to teaching students about opioid overdose that we have an amazing team working together all of the time.

    Shout out to our team: Charles Anyinam, Dana Chorney, Patricia Munro-Gilbert, Nathaniel Ballantyne, Ellen Vogel, Bill Muirhead, Celina da Silva, Lorayne Robertson, Efrosini Papaconstantinou, Winnie Sun, Sue Coffey, Leslie Graham, and Arlene de la Rocha.

  2. Michael Palko / December 10, 2019 at 15:20

    This is a great approach! Are copies of the novel available for purchase? If so, how can I obtain one?