A simulator for surgeons

by Mark Reynolds
Dr. Rolando del Maestro
(Photo: John Morstad)

Imagine boarding an aircraft, only to discover that your pilot is taking a back seat in the cockpit, tutoring a trainee who’ll actually be the one handling the controls of the plane during take-off and landing. That is a rough analogue for how surgical training works: while medical students get limited time with cadavers, the important hands-on training comes while observing and assisting actual surgeries.

Rolando Del Maestro, former director of the Brain Tumour Research Centre at the Montreal Neurological Institute, has long thought that there should be an extra training step for neurosurgeons learning the delicate ins and outs of surgery. And now there is.

The Neuro is home to the most advanced surgical simulator in the world, one Del Maestro played a key role in developing. On it, aspiring doctors can perform several different kinds of virtual brain surgeries, mastering basic techniques before ever putting scalpel to human flesh.

“The question was how to get a realistic system, that captures the ‘feel’ of what it is like to do these kinds of operations, and also capture things like bleeding when it comes to the visual aspect,” explains Del Maestro.

The system – built with backing from the National Research Council and in collaboration with universities in several different countries – has a sophisticated “haptics” feedback, so that aspiring surgeons using the system’s interface feel the differences when cutting into the virtual brain tissue, as opposed to a tumour.

Del Maestro says the simulator can also be used as a weeding out tool to identify medical students who lack the physical skills for surgery. Similarly, it can be used for more experienced surgeons, to help identify those whose skills need reinforcing, or to pinpoint surgeons who are exceptionally adept at performing particular procedures.