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Buffalo surgeons practice on robots - instead of you

Daniel Robison
Inside the viewfinder, surgeons-in-training see a magnified 3-D landscape where precise procedures can be simulated using surgical robots.


It looks like an arcade game, with a 3-D, high definition screen and two arms to manipulate the action.  It's a visceral, bloody environment - where newbies can make their mistakes without killing anyone.

Meet RoSS, the Robotic Surgical Simulator.

Surgical robots controlled by doctors already carry out some procedures in hospitals. But hours of training are required to teach surgeons to properly use the million dollar machines.

That training is important, because more and more, robots being employed for their precision, according to Andrew Stegemann, a robotic training coordinator at Roswell Park in Buffalo.

"It's basically like having an instrument that's roughly the size of the pinkie finger nail that can rotate and articulate like your own wrist," Stegemann says. "[Surgery] can be very taxing on the surgeon's body, it's exhausting."

The RoSS uses software called Hands-On Surgical Training (HoST). This gives surgeons-in-training a hands-on feel of doing procedures, with the leeway to make mistakes and learn without putting someone's life at risk.

"First of all, ethically, it's a lot better to practice on something that's not a real human. You're not putting a patient at risk," Stegemann says. "People will ask, 'Why aren't you practicing on animals?' There's ethical concerns with that. It's also cost prohibitive."

Local connections

While the machine did not originate locally, partners at the University at Buffalo and Roswell Park wrote HoST. One author, UB Mechanical Engineering Professor Thenkurussi Kesavadas, calls the device the most detailed and accurate simulation of learning robotic surgery in the world.

"We heard words like, 'This is a game changer' ... 'This is a new way of training,'" Kesavadas says. "[But] we must remember, robots are a very sophisticated machine. It's like an aircraft. You have to learn how to fly an aircraft. It's the same thing. You have to learn how to use a robot."

Altogether, a surgical robot, simulator and software package could cost more than $2 million. The skills and procedures that could result from proper use make this a relatively cheap investment for a hospital, Kesavadas says.

The next step is marketing the tools to hospitals around the world with the hope they'll bite. With any luck, Kesavadas says, this kind of model could be the 21st century's approach to surgery.