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Accelerating and Enhancing Surgical Training through Virtual Surgery Simulation

  • May 8, 2018
  • Blog, Surgical Focus
Erin Stieber

Erin Stieber

Erin Stieber joined Smile Train in 2013 and serves as Vice President, Strategic Partnerships. She has more than six years of experience working with cleft lip and palate surgical programs around the world and oversees Smile Train’s strategic partnerships and education and training programs. Smile Train is a progressive cleft charity that helps train local doctors to perform cleft surgery and comprehensive cleft care in their own communities.

In the developing world, cleft surgeons frequently do not have access to training or continuing education in cleft surgery, and often can’t access information on the latest techniques and updated protocols. Smile Train recognized this problem and partnered with technology firm BioDigital to create the first free, web-based, interactive Virtual Surgery Simulator designed to enhance training for surgeons in developing countries on how to repair clefts. The simulator is currently available in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Mandarin.

Making essential surgery available to all people is a key component of ensuring equitable access to healthcare for all. Currently, there is a startling gap between accessibility of surgical services and need in the developing world, and it is estimated that at least two billion people lack access to surgical care worldwide. Due to this shortage, millions are living around the world with repairable types of surgical disease, such as cleft lip and palate.

What does the Simulator provide users?
The Virtual Surgery Simulator provides users with a vivid, 3D representation of each step of various cleft procedures, including spatial relationships between relevant anatomy as well as tissue response to surgical intervention. The user can rotate, pan and zoom the Simulator camera and view the patient from any perspective throughout the entire procedure. Users have the ability to make the skin transparent and observe underlying anatomy. Surgeons can learn about the formation of cleft lip and palate anatomy in a series of tutorials. Live surgical video from expert surgeons is included for each step of the procedures so users can juxtapose real patient treatment against the simulation for an additional level of clarity. The Simulator is accessible as an online application at cleftsim.org.

How to use the Simulator.
This unique educational experience aims to accelerate surgical training; however, it is not meant to replace operative training. Our partners have found that when trainees have used the Simulator before hands-on training they have a faster and better understanding of cleft surgical procedures and techniques. Similarly, hands-on or classroom training naturally only lasts a finite period of time, whereas the Simulator allows trainees to review procedures repeatedly and from various angles (including live-video) to provide themselves with on-demand refreshers and continuing education.

Who can use the Simulator?
The Simulator is available for use free of charge, and anyone can create a free account. We think the Simulator can provide an exciting introduction to cleft surgery for medical students, in-depth learning on cleft for surgical residents, and essential ongoing training to surgeons practicing across the developing world. Similarly, the Simulator can help other medical professionals involved in cleft care, including anesthesia providers, orthodontists, nurses and speech therapists, understand more about the surgical procedures performed on the cleft patients they are treating.

Sharing the Simulator with your partners as a tool can help them conceptualize cleft surgery but does not replace hands-on training. Ultimately, it is our goal that this new training tool serves as an important reference for surgeons and medical professionals worldwide by better preparing them to treat cleft lip and palate patients.

Technology is creating new opportunities for us to make great strides in surgical training around the world. The Virtual Surgery Simulator represents one such example of an exciting tool that has the potential to significantly change the landscape of access to surgical care. Smile Train is committed to continuing to invest in surgical training and innovation to scale programs, accelerate learning and elevate the level of cleft care worldwide.