05 October 2008

Surgeons Hone Skills on Nintendo Wii

by Jacob Goldstein

Don’t worry about that guy about to operate on your gallbladder. He trained on the Wii.

According to a very small, very preliminary study, playing certain video games on the Nintendo Wii helps surgical residents to hone their fine motor skills and improve their performance on a serious surgery simulator.

OK, so a simple video game helps these docs with a slightly more complicated one. But bear with us here because the more sophisticated simulator is the sort of thing that’s used right now to help doctors do a better job on keyhole surgery using tiny instruments outfitted with video cameras.

Improvements in simulator performance didn’t come from just any Wii (see image), or any game. Marble Mania is good, for example. Tennis (astonishingly fun to play on the Wii, which uses a motion-sensitive wireless control) isn’t so helpful. “The key is to have subtle hand movements,” Kanav Kahol one of the authors of the study, told the Health Blog. “You can’t hit a tennis swing and expect to become a better surgeon. You need fine motor control.”

Kahol, a biomedical informatics expert affiliated with Arizona State and a hospital chain called Banner Health, worked with Marshall Smith, a Banner surgeon, to see if playing the Wii (Wii-ing?) improved residents’ scores on a standard simulator for minimally invasive, or laparoscopic, surgery.

So they bought a standard golf-club add on for the Wii (”It was like 10 bucks,” Kahol said) then cut off most of the golf club and added a laparoscopic probe (their creation is shown in the picture, above).

Out of a group of 16 residents, eight were assigned to play the Wii (Marble Mania and a suite of games called Wii Play), with the specially-rigged controller. The other eight didn’t get to play. Then all 16 did a simulated laparoscopic procedure (something having to do with a simulated gallbladder).

The ones who had played the Wii showed 48% more improvement on the procedure than those who hadn’t, according to a standard score that measures performance on the simulation, Kahol said. They plan to present the results at the Medicine Meets Virtual Reality conference in a couple weeks.

Next, Kahol and Smith plan to develop a full-blown surgery simulator for the Wii. Among other things, it would allow residents, forced by work-hour caps to spend more time outside the hospital, to practice surgery while they’re at home.

In the meantime at Smith’s hospital there’s a Wii in the room where residents take cat naps while they’re on call. We asked if the residents get competitive about the Wii. “They’re surgery residents, what do you expect?” Smith said

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