Study: Wii Tennis Is an Effective Training Tool for Surgeons

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After a month spent playing video games in addition to their usual training, 21 surgical residents performed laparoscopies with significantly improved accuracy and economy.

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While I was always partial to Nintendo Wii Bowling, my friends in high school were fond of a game called "Trauma Center." Simulating medical emergencies, it required them to use the controller in a quasi-realistic approximation of performing surgery (the magical "Healing Touch" was one of the game's less medically accurate aspects).

Would my friends' expertise at the game qualify them to perform actual surgeries? I wouldn't bet my anesthetized ass on it. Actual surgery, though, is becoming more and more like the games that imitate it. Surgeons manipulate robots and cameras to make their slices and dices more precise. A common example of this is the laparascope, which is used to perform minimally invasive, or "keyhole" surgeries in the abdomen.

With this revolution comes the need for a new set of skills: being able to manipulate instruments while following what's happening on a 2D monitor, instead of watching the 3D body in front of you.

"Play to Become a Surgeon" is the study that resulted when researchers at the University of Rome took the teaching opportunity presented by video games more seriously than have others before them. They introduced play as part of training for post-doc fellows in their first two years of residency, instructing them to use the Wii for an hour a day, five days a week.

After four weeks, all of the students' surgical skills had improved, as we'd hope would happen during their early days of training. But the students who had been playing Wii improved more significantly than those who hadn't. Their movements became not faster, but more precise. They manipulated their instruments with greater economy and performed more efficient cauterizations.

The games the students played weren't anything specifically related to surgery: they chose between tennis, ping-pong, and something called "High Altitude Battle." Yet translated to full procedures, "the training reduced the complication rate and the unsafe cautery rate, which are probably the most frequent avoidable incidents for novice laparoscopists."

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"It is hard to suggest that Academic Institutions adopt a video-game console as a didactic tool for surgery in addition to traditional training and simulators," write the authors, and they generally shy away from doing so. But they do say Wii games could optimize the learning curve for this type of surgery, and then suggest their findings could lead to the development of software specifically designed to train surgeons, instead. Like a more realistic Trauma Center, without the magical powers.

But the proven-to-be-effective Wii has already been developed and, as the authors point out, it's inexpensive and widely available. Is it so unrealistic to think it could be used in a professional setting just because it happens to take the form of a sports video game? 

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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