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Adding computer science to surgical training

Problem Solved: university research answering today's challenges

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Alliance universities make a significant contribution to research that affects our health and wellbeing.

Given the tremendous diversity of expertise that exists in any university, many of them are able to conduct groundbreaking research that spans a range of disciplines and techniques. And with a consistently open approach, they ensure that research is conducted in partnership with practitioners and experts from outside of university life.

This open approach is apparent when you talk to researchers in computer graphical simulation at Bournemouth University who, in partnership with consultant surgeons from Bournemouth and Poole hospitals, are developing a virtual reality based simulator that allows trainee doctors to learn their techniques by operating on a virtual patient.

Colorectal cancer is a life threatening disease and one of the most common cancers. Surgery remains the most common treatment option with 80% of patients undergoing an invasive procedure. Due to the complexity of the anatomy and the delicate structure of the bowel, removing the cancerous tissue fully and cleanly is a very skilful job. Recent research into relapse rates highlights the importance of a specialist colorectal surgeon in effective treatment. However, such skills are born of experience. The reality is that many new doctors gain these skills, in this country, by operating directly on patients which presents both a risk to the patient and inevitably prolongs the training period for capable surgeons.

Researchers in computer graphical simulation at Bournemouth University who, in partnership with consultant surgeons from Bournemouth and Poole hospitals, are developing a virtual reality based simulator that allows trainee doctors to learn their techniques by operating on a virtual patient.

There are already some computer assisted surgery simulators available. However these have primarily been for operations where there are only small movements and small deformations of soft tissue. Bowel cancer surgery is very different and a lot more complicated. To be effective as a training tool, the graphical representation, the sensation of force (haptic feedback) the trainee experiences and the deformation response of the soft tissue need to be realistic. Accurate representation of these elements is incredibly complex. This is why no such other simulators currently exist and why the system that has been developed through this research is one of a kind.

Dr Taz Quershi spoke passionately about his involvement with this research project: “I was appointed as a Consultant Laparoscopic (keyhole) Surgeon at Poole Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, tasked with introducing new laparoscopic techniques to the hospital. I now train other surgeons, both junior and established Consultant Surgeons on how to perform Laparoscopic surgery.

The collaborative project started in 2009 with Bournemouth University and their national centre for computer animation at the media school. This has enabled surgeons to be involved at the very beginning of its development.

The collaboration has meant that we have addressed the difficult challenges posed by this research together as clinicians and computer specialists, which has been really illuminating and a real privilege.

Once completed, we would hope our simulator will be attractive to the surgical profession not just in this country but internationally.”

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