“Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
-Chinese Proverb

We all know the ancient saying. But it’s also the driving philosophy behind a cutting-edge, sustainable approach to helping children in developing countries born with clefts—a deformity that can leave a gap in their lips and the roofs of their mouths.

While in the U.S. and other developed countries the condition can be repaired relatively easily—this low-cost, simple surgery can take as little as 45 minutes—the lack of training for doctors in developing countries has left many children and their families with few options.

But with the release of the world’s first 3D, open access surgical simulator in 2013, doctors worldwide have been able to use cutting edge surgical-training technology to give their patients safe, high-quality care and the opportunity for a full and productive life, free of the lifelong medical challenges and discrimination that often accompany a cleft.

The training also creates a ripple effect in the community, according to Smile Train, an international children’s charity supporting free cleft repair in developing countries. Doctors go on to teach other local doctors the art of cleft surgeries, which often focus on an area the size of a dime in a patient’s mouth.

Through a partnership led by Smile Train and BioDigital, a New York-based developer of bio-medical visualization systems, the 3D web-accessible tool offers doctors in the developing world training for the 21st century. And it replaces outdated textbooks, videos, animations or other costly or time-consuming resources, according to a report in the New York Daily News.

“You can be in an Internet café in Nepal and access this, and learn to do cleft lip and palate care,” said Dr. Roberto Flores, Smile Train’s medical director for the project, in an interview with the Daily News.

This sustainable system means the donations that support Smile Train have both immediate impacts for the patients and their families as well as long-term benefits to the local communities, including doctors and hospitals.

Now, the simulator helps surgeons worldwide grasp medical concepts that are essential in these operations, from exploring intricate procedures from angles they wouldn't get to see in the operating room to learning how to make precise incisions in small areas on babies and other patients.

The simulator is web-based and open-source, meaning anyone in the world can log in for free and use it. “There are plenty of surgical simulators out there, but very few people are using them because of the cost,” Dr. Flores said.

As evidence of the sustainability of Smile Train’s “teach a man to fish” training model, the charity celebrated its one millionth surgery since its founding just 15 years ago. But with one in 700 children in the developing world born with a cleft, there are millions more to help, and these innovative training solutions will continue empowering local surgeons to transform lives in their own communities.