Machine turns doctors into surgeons

High-tech training: Dr Anna Marie Van der Merwe, a fellow in women's heath, uses the laproscopic simulator at Middlemore Hospital. The machine will enable doctors to improve their skills without having to work on real patients.
PETER MEECHAM
High-tech training: Dr Anna Marie Van der Merwe, a fellow in women's heath, uses the laproscopic simulator at Middlemore Hospital. The machine will enable doctors to improve their skills without having to work on real patients.

Attention trainee surgeons: The future is here.

LapSim, the world's most advanced training system for reality-based keyhole surgery, has taken up residence at Middlemore Hospital.

Two new laproscopic simulators – LapSim – are refining the surgical skills of doctors specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology at the hospital's Clinical Training and Education Centre.

At $125,000 a piece, the state-of-the-art simulators are the first of their type in New Zealand and will give doctors real-life surgical situations such as the removal of an ectopic pregnancy or hysterectomies.

Obstetric and gynaecology senior medical officer Douglas Barclay says the LapSim means doctors can practise in a safe virtual-reality environment and – more importantly – get assessed on their performance.

"We're not allowed to fail as doctors any longer and as trainees they're put under huge performance pressure everytime," he says.

"They put themselves under immense pressure, then they have me looking over their shoulder as well as the patient's safety and expectations so it's quite a difficult environment to learn under."

One of those getting familiar with the LapSim is women's health fellow Dr Anna Marie Van der Merwe.

Before her last assessment she had done the equivalent of 100 laproscopies.

"It's obviously a learning curve and a lot has to do with coordination and spatial skills but I'm a lot more confident now and there's some room for improvement."

Sweden-based Surgical Science acting manager Tomas Ragnarsson says the LapSim is a powerful combination of high-tech hardware, software and advanced 3D technology which performs an astonishing 71 million calculations per second in order to "cheat your eyes".

"The difference between the simulation and a game is that in the simulation you can, in real time, interact with tissue of different properties and when you touch other parts of the image it will act in relation to what you do."

Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists chairman Dr John Tait says although the equipment is based in south Auckland it's likely all college trainees will be "rotated through" at some stage.

"The college is always pleased to see advances in technology to support training like the laproscopic simulator, as it provides better opportunities to learn and improves quality and safety around gynaecological surgery."

Funded as part of a $900,000 Lion Foundation grant, the equipment will drastically improve novices' performance times, Dr Barclay says.

Even his own skills have improved from time on the LapSim, he says.

"We're really lucky to find the funding to do this.

"About 7.5 hours of simulated training is the equivalent of approximately 30-50 hours real-life training and evidence shows the real-life surgery is then improved.

"There's evidence that it's going to improve patient safety, decrease operation time and optimise theatre use."

Eastern Courier