OBJECTIVES: This article reviews and critically evaluates historical and contemporary research on simulation-based medical education (SBME). It also presents and discusses 12 features and best practices of SBME that teachers should know in order to use medical simulation technology to maximum educational benefit.

METHODS: This qualitative synthesis of SBME research and scholarship was carried out in two stages. Firstly, we summarised the results of three SBME research reviews covering the years 1969-2003. Secondly, we performed a selective, critical review of SBME research and scholarship published during 2003-2009.

RESULTS: The historical and contemporary research synthesis is reported to inform the medical education community about 12 features and best practices of SBME: (i) feedback; (ii) deliberate practice; (iii) curriculum integration; (iv) outcome measurement; (v) simulation fidelity; (vi) skill acquisition and maintenance; (vii) mastery learning; (viii) transfer to practice; (ix) team training; (x) high-stakes testing; (xi) instructor training, and (xii) educational and professional context. Each of these is discussed in the light of available evidence. The scientific quality of contemporary SBME research is much improved compared with the historical record.

CONCLUSIONS: Development of and research into SBME have grown and matured over the past 40 years on substantive and methodological grounds. We believe the impact and educational utility of SBME are likely to increase in the future. More thematic programmes of research are needed. Simulation-based medical education is a complex service intervention that needs to be planned and practised with attention to organisational contexts.