Australia trials virtual surgery technology

Trainee surgeons will be able to operate on virtual patients if the trial of new virtual reality technology is a success.

SYDNEY--Virtual reality technology that will enable trainee surgeons to practise on "virtual patients" is being trialled in a Sydney hospital this week and could be deployed in training centres across Asia-Pacific by the end of next year.

The technology, developed by scientists at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), combines 3D images with an artificial sense of touch to create a realistic simulation of surgical procedures, allowing users to both see and manipulate realistic "organs".

The first phase of the trial, which will run for a few weeks at Sydney's Nepean Hospital, will attempt to measure the differences in surgical skill by comparing the results of experienced surgeons and novices, according to Dr Matthew Hutchins, CSIRO computer scientist and virtual reality expert.

"The results of all the trials will show us what aspects of the system are useful and effective for training and how to improve it," Hutchins said. "They will tell us how realistic the images and touch feedback need to be to make the simulation useful for learning and practise."

In the initial trials, trainees and experienced surgeons will use the system to perform key-hole surgery to remove a gall bladder from a virtual patient using a robotic arm which resists the movement of the instruments in the same way that real organs would resist being moved or cut--making the experience as close to real life as possible, according to Hutchins. During the virtual operation, a simulation of what is happening inside the "patient" can be viewed by the trial participant.

CSIRO is working with Australian company Medic Vision to develop the technology into commercial training modules and hopes deploy prototype modules in surgical skills training centres by the end of next year, Hutchins said.

Initially, the system will focus on teaching knowledge rather than the dexterity of a procedure, generally looking at anatomy training and basic skills such as needle insertions and sutures, Hutchins said. However, CSIRO claims to have had lots of expressions of interest to develop specific systems, for gynaecological surgery for example, and is in discussions about the possible development of the system for Sydney's Cochlear Implant Centre where virtual reality technology may be used to train surgeons in drilling the temple bone--a very difficult skill to learn, according to Hutchins.

CSIRO also claims to have had a lot of interest from the Royal Australian College of Surgeons, which is world renown for its quality of training.

"All surgeons we have shown the technology to are very excited and want it to be developed to their particular area of expertise," Hutchins said.

CSIRO believes that virtual reality technology will be important in training the next generation of surgeons and will fit into the whole spectrum of training, adding value to the other aspects, such as training in the operating theatre as well as training on cadavers and animals.

"This will provide an extra level of training that people can use over and over again and in their own time," Hutchins said.

Hutchins also sees a future of surgical lessons, where a surgeon demonstrates on a 3-D model, are beamed to trainees in other countries who watch on 3-D virtual reality consoles.

Although there are other similar systems around the world, "we'll be fairly close to world leading if we get anatomy training and surgical training actively deployed and backed by the Royal Australia College of Surgeons," Hutchins said.

Staff writer Rachel Lebihan reported from Sydney.

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