Can gaming make doctors better at telesurgery?

From the mHealthNews archive
By Eric Wicklund

A new study found that video games don't help medical students become better telemedicine surgeons. But that doesn't mean future docs should stop playing.

The research, conducted by the Florida Hospital Nicholson Center, reinforced earlier studies that indicate gaming does improve surgeons' laparoscopic skills. More importantly, however, med students involved in the project showed no improvement in basic robotic tasks.

Officials said this may be because video games are typically geared toward two-dimensional play, which is more along the lines of laparoscopic surgery – and that's been the focus of most telemedicine-based surgical procedures so far. But true robotic surgery employs three-dimensional views and actions that aren't the strong point of gaming, even in 3D games currently in use.

So forget about seeing a doctor in New York saving a patient's life in remote Montana via robotic surgery – at least not yet.

[See also: Testing lag times in telesurgery]

Nicholson Center chief technology officer Roger Smith told mHealth News that the results of the study, which involved med students at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine and the UCF Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, were surprising because participants who played video games for four or more hours a day weren't showing more aptitude.

"We expected that, though they were not using robotic surgery-like controls, they were developing a mental familiarity with 3D worlds and the matching hand control skills to move through it and manipulate objects more proficiently than non-game players," Smith said. "In retrospect, we are giving more attention to the differences between the game console controllers and the robotic surgery controls. Game console controllers are limited to just finger manipulations, where robotic surgery controls require full arm movements in all three dimensions."

For the foreseeable future, Smith sees games being developed to guide med students around the inside of the human body, like the old sci-fi classic "Fantastic Voyage." He also wonders if Wii and Kinect devices could be further developed to focus on arm and finger movements to assess surgical procedures – in effect, creating a set of chopsticks that attach to a gamer's fingers.

While the healthcare industry is now content to modify available games, Smith said the future of telesurgery may lie in the development of specific – and very intricate – games for the medical industry. That raises the question of cost, however.

"There are certainly opportunities, but the limitation is in the economics," he said. "The triple-A game platforms that are so prominent can cost tens of millions of dollars to create. Recouping this investment calls for millions of sales. Healthcare education may lead to thousands of sales, so the game itself has to be created in the $10,000 to $100,000 range. Since adoption of the game is not guaranteed, the risk of it being ignored by the educational community is pretty high."

See also: 

PCHA partners with Games for Health

Reaching out with robots