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Simulators Can Teach Old Docs New Tricks

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sometimes the patient is a 35-year-old woman with severe diabetes. Other times, she seems more like a 65-year-old male smoker with lung cancer.

An $8 million center in San Francisco is using lifelike robots and other cutting-edge technology to help doctors learn and perfect surgical procedures.

California Pacific Medical Center opened the surgical simulation center in October and has since done skills training courses for more than 150 doctors. "For years, pilots have trained on flight simulators," said Stephen Lockhart, an anesthesiologist and director of the new center. "We're doing this to improve competency."

Medical schools and their affiliated teaching hospitals have been using simulators for two decades. Over the years, they have become increasingly sophisticated, with robots that talk and bleed. The University of Maryland Medical Center and the University of Maryland Medical School opened a simulation center in 2006. George Washington Medical Center opened its simulation center in 2002.

The center in San Francisco offers a new focus: In the past, simulators have been used to train medical students and residents. California Pacific Medical Center, on the other hand, is targeting veteran doctors who want to learn a new technique or refine an old one. "We're focusing on continuing medical education," Lockhart said. "I've been practicing medicine for 25 years, and many things have changed since I was a resident."

The center also has a skills lab where more than 50 doctors can simultaneously practice surgeries on cadavers. Instructors perform demonstrations, with the procedure broadcast on screens throughout the lab.

The tradition in medicine where doctors, "see one, do one, teach one" is changing, Lockhart said. "We're seeing now a move to 'see one, practice one, and then do one,' " he said.

Lockhart also hopes the center can help train medical professionals around the world. Recently, the center conducted a video conference with doctors in Iraq. "There are some very well-trained physicians there, but they have been out of touch with their colleagues in the rest of the world for 20 years," Lockhart said. "Hopefully we can continue to work with them."

-- Sindya N. Bhanoo

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