Technology: Simulated Surgery

There’s one word no one wants to hear in the operating room: “Oops!” It’s a chilling thought, but surgical students have limited opportunities to practice before they enter their field. Traditionally, they hone their skills on cadavers or animals, neither of which fully prepares them for the real-world operating room. Now, a research team at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., is developing a high-tech solution: virtual surgeries.

Led by Suvranu De, assistant professor of mechanical, aerospace and nuclear engineering at RPI, the researchers’ goal is to offer an unusual level of visual and tactile realism. Students will wield actual surgical instruments attached to robotic force-feedback devices (hidden inside a mannequin), which will help refine their manual dexterity. As they work, the future surgeons will watch their progress via computerized 3-D models of the human organs they’re “operating” on. To further train students for the uncertainties of the operating room, “you can create any kind of problem situation,” De says. For example, the virtual patient could have an unusually thin esophagus, requiring extra care to avoid puncturing it during a laparoscopic procedure.

For now, the team is thinking small, focusing on simulating simple tasks such as sutures and incisions. But by 2010, De’s team plans to have its first prototype, a simulation of bariatric procedures, which are used to treat obesity. The prototype will undergo testing at the hands of residents at Harvard Medical School, as well as residents and surgeons at Albany Medical Center in Albany, N.Y.

After that, the simulator could be adapted for all sorts of mundane and arcane surgical procedures, De says. If tools like these catch on, they just may turn out to be virtual lifesavers.

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