Long-Distance Doctoring with Virtual Surgery

by Michael Mullaney on September 29, 2009

A few weeks ago, a group of researchers remotely and successfully operated different high-tech surgical robots from a variety of locations around the world. Rensselaer professor Suvranu De is part of this team, which is sowing the seeds of one day allowing a doctor in New York, for example, to perform complicated surgery on a patient in Seattle, Vienna, Perth, or anywhere else. This is a big deal.

Here’s the official report of what transpired:

In a 24-hour period, each participating group connected over the Internet and controlled robots at different locations. The tests performed demonstrated how a wide variety of robot and controller designs can seamlessly interoperate, allowing researchers to work together easily and more efficiently. In addition, the demonstration evaluated the feasibility of robotic manipulation from multiple sites, and was conducted to measure time and performance for evaluating laparoscopic surgical skills.

In these days of MMORPGs, Xbox Live, and Second Life, the idea of doctors using technology to perform telesurgical procedures may not initially sound very impressive. But think about it: we’re talking about surgery. Initially it will be minimally-invasive laparoscopic surgery, but this is still – categorically and unquestionably – a far more nuanced, intricate, and dynamic endeavor than slaying monsters in World of Warcraft. Surgery of any kind is serious business.

The success of the recent test means that all of the different partners collaborating on this project can now propel the technology forward using a standardized protocol – their different systems and robots are now, without a doubt, speaking the same language. Planting the kernel of this new telesurgical infrastructure should lead to further standardization and boost the rate of related discoveries and innovations.

This is only one of several fascinating projects taking place at De’s iMedSim (Interactive Medical Simulation) Lab. Here are some the additional benefits, as written by De, about the promise of developing digital interfaces – particularly those that realistically replicate the sense of touch – through which medical doctors can perform and simulate surgery:

Present day surgical training involves extensive use of cadavers and animals. Only a few trainees can practice at a time and they can hardly encounter rare medical conditions during the course of their study. Besides, objective quantitative assessment of their skills is difficult.

To circumvent these problems and to provide surgeons with almost inexhaustible training materials, there is significant interest in digital surgery or the use of computer generated models to help train surgeons; much like fight simulations are used today to successfully train aviation pilots.

Such a simulator would allow the trainee to interact with virtual 3D graphical models of human organs while manipulating them using a force feedback device such as a Phantom. Better trained surgeons and residents would translate to better prepared surgeons in the operating room, leading to fewer errors and morbidity.

Check out this Discovery Channel story and Rensselaer news story on De’s research. Also, be sure to check out this story on De’s work with professor George Xu to develop a 3-D virtual patient.