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Doctors In Zambia Use 'Virtual Reality' Developed At SMU To Train Surgeons

Southern Methodist University
An image taken from the "Virtual Operating Room" being developed by SMU

Virtual reality has advanced significantly in recent years. What was once mostly for video games and entertainment is now being used as a teaching tool — including for surgical training. Southern Methodist University Professors Eric Bing and Anthony Cuevas are leading a team that's using virtual reality to train surgeons in Zambia to treat cervical cancer. 


Why Zambia?

Cervical cancer is very prevalent in Zambia, and SMU's virtual reality focuses on helping to learn how to perform an operation for cervical cancer. The country needs physicians who can actually do these operations that can save women's lives. They just don't have them. 

Why did you decide to focus the technology on treating cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is easily preventable; it's caused by the human papilloma virus. So if you can find a woman in the early stage, you can just put a little vinegar on the lesion. It turns white and you freeze it off with a cold probe, just like you do a wart.

However,  if you don't start treating a patient early, their cancer may spread and they may need interventions like a hysterectomy.

Is virtual reality cost-effective for doctors in Zambia?

So the real key to our work in our collaboration with the school and doctors in Zambia was the commercialization of this VR technology a few years ago, primarily pushed by the video game industry.

For less than a few thousand dollars, you can now purchase this equipment that previously cost medical schools hundreds of thousands of dollars. So we're now able to purchase the equipment at a rate that's affordable for hospitals in developing countries.

What's involved with the training?

They're actually simulating the procedure. They walk through and actually use hand controllers with six degrees of freedom, so that they can pick up instruments to actually practice placing clamps, cutting, suturing, those type of activities.

These are experienced surgeons so they know how to cut, suture and clamp, so we're not teaching them how to do those things, but they are able to pick up the tools and actually go through the steps in the procedure.

Did you work with doctors in Zambia to get the program off the ground?

This was done in partnership with physicians and gynecologists who actually do this work in Zambia.

We worked with a physician named Dr. Groesbeck Parham, who's a oncologic gynecologist and works in Zambia. He really worked hand-in-hand with us to make sure that every single thing was exactly as it should be. 

How has the program has been recieved in Zambia?

It's surpassed our expectations. The trainees who have actually used it have gotten totally engaged. They've learned much more than we had even intended to teach them, because they got so immersed. In order to do well with this, we make it somewhat game-like. So there's a score they have to get, and they can only get the score through accuracy.

It's forced them to go back and take a look at their notes and books to understand the procedure. It's causing them to not only get better at this operation, but we're beginning to see other collateral benefits that we didn't expect. They're now looking at other things and feeling as though they're more competent in other areas.

Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.