Surgery simulations a viable educational tool for students

Allison Wickler

Anyone who has dreamed of replacing a failing knee joint or cauterizing blood vessels can now come closer than ever to performing the procedures without attending years of medical school.

A user-friendly online program has recently expanded its repertoire, allowing interested learners to see how the body works.

Edheads, which created the site, is a nonprofit company that creates free educational Web programs for teachers, students and other interested learners.

Eric Bort, creative director for Edheads, said the programs are based on the idea that someone could pick up the tools and interact with a program, rather than just see photos or illustrations of a procedure.

With the Edheads programs, which include both knee and hip surgery simulations, the user is guided through an online surgical process on an animated patient, using a computer mouse to make virtual incisions and other surgical maneuvers.

The site (www.edheads.org) includes photos of actual surgeries to supplement the simulations, and the surgery simulations are typically geared toward a high school curriculum, Bort said.

Robert Sweet, assistant professor of urologic surgery and clinical director for simulation programs at the University’s Medical School, said at the university level, computer-based programs have become more realistic and are just one of several types of surgery simulation tools.

His Seattle-based company, Red Llama, Inc., also produces a program similar to Edheads, but the simulation is done on real video images, he said.

Other computer-based simulations include more advanced surgical simulations that can even detect the difference in skill level between an intern and a more experienced resident, Sweet said.

Apart from building and using simulation technologies, Sweet said the medical school also assesses the validity of simulation training techniques.

He said simulation programs can be expensive and, if the content is not appropriate for the age group, it could enforce negative behaviors.

However, he said, their work has shown that simulations are an effective educational tool, and the complexity of a simulation program depends on the individual objective.

“If the high school student wants to get an experience, then I would go with the more high-fidelity things,” he said. “If they just want to comprehend what’s going on, then you can make it more basic.”

Mark George, who is in his fourth year of residency in general surgery at the medical school, said he has seen more advanced medical software programs, but has not used the programs for his surgical training at the University.

Although he is not familiar with the Edheads program, he said simulations can be beneficial educational options.

“The bottom line is that if somebody is interested in science or interested in biology or medicine in high school, something like this would probably pique their interest,” he said.

Bort said though they try to meet national science standards with their programs, common sense generally holds people back from thinking that Edheads could actually teach them to do surgery.

However, he said people sometimes call him with medical questions.

“In Singapore, someone actually wanted to start teaching their medical students how to perform the surgery based on our activity,” he said.

Bort said they realized kids are often making career choices a lot sooner than many people expect.

He said some of the next programs planned include autopsy and open heart surgery.

“Exposing them to something like this Ö really opens up their minds, I think, to the possibilities that exist,” Bort said.