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A conversation with Walter Eppich

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Walter Eppich tells us what it means to be a simulation researcher and more

This time we had a chat with Walter Eppich and asked him our 10 get-to-know-you + 1 questions. And we found out that, before becoming a pediatric emergency medicine physician, he wanted to be an interpreter working at the United Nations. Of his job he loves the fact that there is no “typical day” but that every day is different: in his spare time he manages to combine walking with listening to audiobooks. After a PhD in Health Professions Education and many years as a simulation researcher, he went all the way to Antarctica to study team dynamics in extreme environments.

SZ: I am so excited to get to catch up with you and chat about you and your career! Tell our readers a little bit about yourself. How would you summarize Walter Eppich?

I have a clinical background in pediatric emergency medicine (PEM) and spent over 20 years in clinical practice. During my clinical training, I became fascinated by how teams prepare to care for critically ill and injured children. In 2018 I completed a PhD in Health Professions Education at Maastricht University with a focus on conversational learning. I now study interprofessional collaborative practice, team reflection, healthcare debriefing, and team adaptation. I work closely with team and organizational psychologists to study team processes both in and outside of healthcare. In 2018, I traveled to Antarctica to study how Antarctic research teams adapt to ever-changing conditions in extreme environments. In my free time, I love spending time with friends and family, biking, traveling and walking while listening to audiobooks!

SZ: How did you get your start writing about simulation?

During my training as a PEM doctor, I was exposed to regular simulations which helped me prepare for emergency situations. I took a simulation educator course at the Harvard Center for Medical Simulation (CMS) in 2004 and haven’t looked back. Early in my academic career, I had opportunities to write papers with Jenny Rudolph, Bill McGaghie, Mark Adler, and Betsy Hunt: I learned so much and got infected with the virus, so to speak. Initially I thought the writing would get much easier, yet I still struggle with an empty page—getting started is the hardest part for me.

SZ: What does it mean to be a simulation scientist to you?

Being a simulation scientist means evaluating and re-evaluating what we know: 

What works in healthcare simulation and what doesn’t?
How does it work and under what conditions?
How do we create structures to promote the transfer of learning from simulation to clinical practice so that patients benefit?

This is a constant process since our knowledge base continually changes. For me, I think the rigour we bring to our work is super important. This aspect is critical for all research. In recent years I have tried to bring that rigour to qualitative research within our space to make sure we can trust the findings of qualitative research and also believe the findings. I think I can contribute to that dialogue in our field since qualitative approaches are relatively new in health simulation.

SZ: And if you had not become a simulationist, what would you have done instead?

Before I went into healthcare and became a physician and health professions educator, I wanted to study to become an interpreter. I would have studied other languages and dreamed of working at the United Nations. I ended up studying medicine in Germany—thus I speak German fluently and also a little bit of Spanish picked up in school and also working in North American hospitals with a diverse Latino populations.

SZ: Can you describe what a typical day in the Sim Center looks like?

There is no typical day! Every day is different, which is what I love about our centre. Our simulation team is led by our Director of Simulation Education, Dr Claire Condron. The expert RCSI SIM team supports simulation activities for a range of learners: from undergraduate medical, pharmacy or physiotherapy students, to postgraduate surgical or emergency medicine trainees, to practicing surgeons learning about robotic surgery. They also build the coolest innovative physical simulators. We also induct and train up new simulation educators every year—Dr Condron also leads up our faculty development initiatives. The RCSI SIM research team also never has a dull moment—on some days they focus on planning new studies, on others generating and analysing data using a variety of methods and methodologies. And of course, there is the writing up of papers and grant applications. There is always something going on!

SZ: And what do you do outside of work to relax?

I love to travel: to explore new places but mostly to see my family in the United States and to maintain long standing friendships –  in Europe, North America and beyond.  I absolutely love connecting with friends I have known for more than 20 or 30 years!I like staying active and love to combine walking with audiobooks. Historical fiction is my guilty pleasure: A Gentleman in Moscow is my recent top favorite. Fitness-wise, I am working on getting 15 consecutive pull ups. I am getting close!

SZ: Where do you see the greatest need for action in simulation development?

I think we need to continue the trajectory of professionalizing healthcare simulation and creating robust career pathways—for simulation technicians/specialists, for simulation educators, for experts in simulation faculty development, for simulation researchers. Simulation has been a hobby for so many for so long—more than a hobby, healthcare simulation is a career!

SZ: You’re currently the Chair of a very well-known simulation center, what are your future career goals?

To continue contributing to the field and making an impact through highest quality education and research that advances simulation science. At the end of the day, it is all about ensuring that health professionals at all stages of their working life are prepared to take the best care of patients. The older I get, the more acutely aware I am that the next patient might be me.

SZ: I feel exactly the same way as you…probably because I’m also getting less and less young 😉. And changing the subject, imagine that you step outside the office at the end of this interview and find a lottery ticket that ends up winning €10 million. What investment would you make in simulation?

That’s a tough one. Hmmmm, I would invest in artificial intelligence to support healthcare simulation education and research—so many possible applications! For example, to help us capture language/human speech and provide real-time analysis of team interactions and debriefings. Imagine the potential impact of real-time feedback for teams and for simulation educators! That would be an amazing faculty development tool. And then the research potential….

SZ: One of your fields of research is the contribution of conversational learning for individuals and teams. But what was the most embarrassing situation in which you preferred to remain silent?

Oh wow, there are so many. How do I pick? Many situations when I put my foot in my mouth. 
Let’s see, several years back I showed up at a black tie event dressed up but not fancy enough. Everyone said it was fine, but I obviously did not read the invitation properly…

SZ: We conclude our talk with our SIMZINE question. If you had the superpower of being invisible, which simulation researcher would you like to spy, and why?

I would like to spy on Dr Ryan Brydges from Toronto. I have been following Ryan’s work for so long, I have been inspired by his excellent studies and the evolution of his methodological approaches to healthcare simulation research.

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