Surgery simulation goes mobile with apps to teach trainees to think like seasoned surgeons

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In a 2011 New Yorker piece, surgeon-journalist Atul Gawande wrote that surgery was “no more physically difficult than writing in cursive.” Rather, it’s about familiarity and judgment. “You learn the problems that can occur during a particular procedure or with a particular condition, and you learn how to either prevent or respond to those problems.”

While the best way to learn surgery may be spending time in the operating room, medical students first need to develop fundamental skills in a safe, nonclinical setting. The importance of practice for surgeons, combined with sophisticated technology, has driven great innovation in surgical simulation in recent years.

A UK startup called Touch Surgery set out to develop a tool that would harness the knowledge of surgeons who have spent years doing these operations and make it easily accessible to trainees internationally. To do that, the company has created a series of mobile apps designed to be used in tandem with other training tools by future surgeons.

Created in 2011 by four tech-savvy surgeons, the company offers free iOS apps that break down an operation into steps and requires users to employ a process called cognitive task analysis. With the aim of simulating the cognitive/decision-making element of surgery, the programs take users through guided, animated simulations.

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“An operation is more a surgeon’s brain than his hands,” said Jean Nehme, a plastic surgeon and managing director of Touch’s parent company, Kinosis. “So we decided to teach the cognitive, procedural and decision-making points of surgery.”

Once users have gone through the learning portion of the module, they can perform test simulations and track their performances over time.

Many companies make surgical training systems, but according to Nehme, most simulators on the market now are fixed and inaccessible to most trainees. “They tend to be hardware, which is expensive, and focused on teaching technical skills,” he said. (One exception I’m aware of is Simbionix, which launched a mobile product in 2010.)

Touch has already released eight modules — from cleft palate repair to laparoscopic gallbladder removal — that have been downloaded 30,000 times, Nehme said. Currently, the team is working on conducting scientific studies at Imperial College London that they hope will demonstrate the clinical benefits of the product.

The company will be part of the Blueprint Health class that takes residence at the accelerator later this month, where it will work on adding new features and continuing to develop new modules. (Surgeons Advait Gandhe and Andre Chow design the visual elements of the apps, Nehme said). He added that the business model aims to keep the apps free to users for as long as possible.

Check out a preview of the technology in the video below.

[Photo from Touch Surgery]

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Deanna Pogorelc

By Deanna Pogorelc MedCity News

Deanna Pogorelc is a Cleveland-based reporter who writes obsessively about life science startups across the country, looking to technology transfer offices, startup incubators and investment funds to see what’s next in healthcare. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Ball State University and previously covered business and education for a northeast Indiana newspaper.
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