Learning surgery through virtual simulation

A popular saying in medical school has long been "See one, do one, teach one" -- meaning that young doctors are expected to learn as they go. CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook looks at one new technology that is changing the way doctors prepare for surgery.

Dr. Neel Kantak is a first-year plastic surgery resident at Harvard Medical School.

"I don't think that anything we do in surgery is natural," he said. "I think most of the movements are things people are not born with the coordination to do."

So Dr. Kantak and others come to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center's skills lab to practice laparascopic surgery -- procedures done through tiny incisions. The hope is extra surgery training can lower complication rates for patients and costs for insurers.

"When you make the right move," said Kantak, "the tissue gets split the same way it would if you were in an operating room."

The virtual surgery simulator uses touch feedback to help surgeons hone motor skills -- like picking up small objects and knot tying -- they will need in an operating room.

"What the simulation lab allows us to do is develop the coordination," said Kantak, "so when someone tells us, 'This should be your next move,' you have the ability to actually do it with you hands."

The virtual training taking place in labs such as this breaks away from methods students have traditionally used, including practicing on live patients.

"We are able to let surgeons in a safe environment do these operations to get feedback on how they're doing," said Dr. Daniel Jones, chief of minimally invasive surgery at BIMDC. "Some will do very well, some not so well."

The hope is to bring these kinds of simulators to hospitals and medical centers across the country.

"I think that the only way to get good at a particular surgery or doing a particular operation is to do it over and over again," said Kantak.

And now with virtual simulators, he can do just that.

Of course, these simulators teach doctors nothing about clinical judgment. They have to learn the old fashioned way: one flesh and blood patient at a time.

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook

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