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Robo Doc


By Scott Fields

Published Apr 1, 2011 8:00 AM

It has no bedside manner. It can't write a prescription. And it's got a square head. But as medical students in Italy recently learned firsthand, a good robot makes a great teacher.


Photo courtesy of the UCLA Geffen School of Medicine.

That's the takeaway from a breakthrough method to teach surgery developed by Dr. Erik Dutson, associate clinical professor of surgery at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine.

Using his laptop computer and a pair of joysticks while sitting at his kitchen table in Los Angeles, Dutson, or more accurately, his robot, recently instructed surgical students in Milan on how to perform stomach surgery. He 'moved' around the patient in the operating room, answering questions and demonstrating technique.

"Teaching by robot allows me to do things I can't normally do when I'm there in person," Dutson explains. "Instead of pointing something out on a screen projecting the inside of the patient, I'm able to take an internal snapshot, write on it, and send the picture back to the students so they can really see what I'm talking about."

By viewing the monitor on the robot's head, the students in Milan could also see Dutson's quick sketches indicating his opinion on where staples should be applied to close the suture.

Dutson's new method utilizes the InTouch Health Robotic System, a futuristic health technology already in use at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where surgeons in the neuro intensive care unit send a 5'6" android-like robot dubbed RON I (Robot of the Neuro ICU ) to check on hospitalized patients remotely.

AI in the OR

Discover more ways robotics is revolutionizing medicine on the Gonda/UCLA Robotic Center website.

Dutson, who serves as the director of the UCLA Minimally Invasive Surgery Fellowship, believes his robotic alter-ego will enhance education around the world by "bringing in" leading experts without the expense of actually transporting them to the site. His team is working on several new projects using similar technology and, in a partnership with the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, has developed a system that will help surgeons using robotic surgical instruments actually feel resistance to bone and tissue as if they were operating on a body.

The team has also developed a new robot that features dual controls similar to those used to teach driver's education, enabling instructors to guide trainees over the Internet, with both parties using a duplicate set of standard laparoscopic tools. Dutson also is exploring a partnership with UC Irvine to study human factors involved with using robots for surgeries.

To use the robot, surgery students must have excellent hand-eye coordination. So when screening candidates for the program, "I challenge them to a video game of Star Wars," Dutson explains. "I need to make sure they have the skill it takes to use these tools effectively."