Teaching goes high-tech: Surgery gets a cyberboost

Virtual technologies prevent mistakes on patients

Surgeons in training can practice even the most tricky of procedures before ever attempting them on a patient, thanks to two new technologies being introduced to medical education. Those technologies could improve medical education for residents and help resolve ethical dilemmas associated with practicing minimally invasive techniques on recently deceased patients.

At Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, surgeons are practicing nasal and sinus surgeries on a virtual reality mannequin. Begin ning in July, surgical residents at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) College of Medicine will use biomedical tele-immersion as part of their curriculum.

Surgeons are practicing using endoscopes to explore the narrow passages of human sinus cavities on an anatomically correct mannequin named Martin at Montefiore Medical Center. The mannequin was built by engineers at Lockheed Martin Corporation in Bethesda, MD, using the same virtual reality computer programs for training pilots. "What we’re trying to do is bring all that expertise and marry it with medical technology and get it to where it can be very accurate," says Andrew Gurcak of Lockheed Martin.

Martin can be customized to mimic particular patients. Physicians at Montefiore Medical Center are able to download computed axial tomography scans into the mannequin simulator to practice difficult or unusual procedures. The tech - nology is especially helpful in training surgeons in head and neck surgeries that require the use of instruments near the eyes and brain.

Residents part of research study

Surgical residents at UIC will participate in a unique project this summer to measure whether virtual reality technology, high-performance computing, and high-speed networking can improve medical education.

UIC researchers received a $1.04 million grant from the National Institutes of Health National Library of Medicine to refine virtual models of the liver, pelvic floor, and temporal bone, and study the model’s impact on medical education and training.

The collaborative project involves UIC’s College of Health and Human Development Sciences, the College of Engineering’s electronic visualization laboratory, and the College of Medicine’s departments of surgery, head and neck surgery, and medical education. The project also involves physicians in the colon and rectal surgery department at nearby Cook County Hospital.

Managed care has put pressure on medical educators to find more efficient ways to train medical students, says Jonathon Silverstein, MD, principal investigator for the project. "Managed care emphasizes getting patients in and out of the operating room as quickly as possible, but teaching takes a lot of time. As a result, today’s residents spend less time in the operating room," he explains.

Silverstein expects the addition of virtual reality models into the UIC curriculum will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of medical training. The technology also will produce residents who are better prepared for operating room experiences, he adds.