×

A video game that will soon train robotic surgeons

Robotic surgeries minimize pain, blood loss and the risk of infection, and they're poised to be the next big thing in medicine, with one survey expecting the market to reach $20 billion by 2021. But for a field that's burgeoning so quickly, there's still a lot of training that needs to be done.

The Florida Hospital Nicholson Center, a medical research and training center founded in 2001, says there is currently no standard training curriculum for robotic surgery. But using a grant from the Department of Defense, the center is trying to create one — and they're using a video game to do so.

A doctor uses a robotic surgery device to operate on a patient.
Source: Florida Hospital Nicholson Center
A doctor uses a robotic surgery device to operate on a patient.

The goal is simple: Create a tool that can be used by robotic surgeons everywhere to better learn to communicate with their teams, increasing the success rate of these types of procedures. (As of last July, just 144 deaths had been linked to robotic surgeries over a 14-year period in the United States.)

To be fair, calling the FRS Virtual Team a game is a bit of a stretch. While it uses a video game graphics engine and basic input mechanics, it's more of a training tool, where surgeons learn proper procedures for communicating with their team. But the creators say that's exactly the point.

"Team communication is the biggest hurdle, especially in the medical field," said Alyssa Tanaka, a research scientist at Florida Hospital Nicholson Center who focuses on robotic surgery simulation and effective surgeon training. "It's very hard to get all these medical professionals available to do this kind of training. Video games have been an up-and-coming [way to do so in several fields], especially in defense, which is where a lot of simulation efforts start."

If that's a little hard to picture, it helps to have a mental image of the robotic surgical theater. On one side of the room is the patient, nurses, anesthesiologist and other supporting health-care officials. Sitting in the other is the surgeon — with head and hands stuck into what might resemble the fusion of an incubator and a big video game arcade machine — controlling the robot that hovers over the patient and does the physical work.

Because the surgeon's face is so carefully watching what's happening on monitors in front of him, his commands sometimes get muffled. The Nicholson Center's training tool helps put surgeons in the habit of communicating clearly with the team on everything from patient preparedness to staff fatigue levels to improve patient safety.

"Robotic surgery creates a larger problem because it's so different than other surgical approaches," said Tanaka. "Instead of the surgeon being able to make eye contact or be heard clearly, they've got their face in the console and could be several feet away from the team. ... The goal for us is to give them an environment they can play in their home or office, in the hope of improving their communication skills with their team."

Doctors are scored at the end of each of the six exercises, each of which presents various patient-safety situations that have to be overcome using TeamSTEPPS, a teamwork system developed jointly by the Department of Defense and the Agency of Healthcare Research and Quality.

The program has provided $5.4 million to the Nicholson Center to date for a number of initiatives, including this one. Tanaka said the cost to develop the game came in at around $400,000.

The idea of encouraging surgeons to play more video games isn't exactly new. In 2007, a study by Dr. James Rosser Jr. found that surgical residents and medical students who played specific video games did better on laparoscopic surgery simulators than those who avoided games. The following year, a study found that playing Wii games, like Marble Mania, helped surgical residents improve their fine motor skills and improved their performance on surgical simulators.

And in 2012, a study at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston pitted a number of groups against each other to see who performed better using virtual surgery tools: High school sophomore gamers, college gamers and medical residents.

In the end, the high-schoolers won.

By Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com