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University creates splash in medical world with new surgery simulation centre

04/27/2012 12:40 EDT | Updated 06/27/2012 05:12 EDT
TAMPA, Fla. - In a room lit so brightly it almost hurts the eyes, operating tables are lined up in meticulous rows like a modern-day MASH unit. Ten of the stations are busy on this day, each one occupied by two medical students practicing their suturing techniques on sections of pig aortas.

In a nearby lab, trainees gather around a video screen as one of them tackles the delicate work of trying to insert a tiny catheter into a simulated artery. A trauma operating room down the hall can be transformed with the sights and sounds of a battlefield to train combat medics in realistic surroundings.

And in a pediatric unit, doctors and nurses work on lifelike mannequins that can be programmed to suddenly change vital signs or stop breathing to test the decision-making skills of those who work with the most vulnerable patients.

Medical simulators for training doctors are not new, but University of South Florida officials say they've built the largest dedicated simulation facility under one roof. The new $38 million Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation Center, which covers a half block in downtown Tampa, will certainly benefit USF med students, but it's also expected to draw around 30,000 health professionals from around the world every year to hone their surgical skills. It opened in March.

"The thing that makes it a huge deal is the fact that we have the ability to simulate everything we do in real life," said Dr. Karl Illig, chief of vascular surgery at USF medical school. "Simulation in general is so important because we're going to make mistakes when we take care of human beings, and this way we're allowed to make our mistakes on a machine where it doesn't hurt anyone."

The 90,000-square-foot facility also includes an education centre with auditorium, and a research and innovation lab where medical professionals, engineers and other experts can work together to invent and develop new medical devices, then test them on virtual patients.

USF paid $3 million for the land downtown and funded construction with bonds. Corporate partnerships with manufacturers helped outfit the facility with what CEO Deborah Sutherland describes as "the latest and greatest" in medical equipment, superior to most hospitals.

Dr. Ian Norden, a vascular surgeon from England who hopes to be practicing at a university research hospital there by the end of the year, was in one of the first groups to visit.

"I've never seen anything like this, certainly not in the UK," said Norden, 36. "In the UK system, the training is still very much on the patient rather than in simulation, so you would be doing the small part of an operation you are capable of doing and developing your skills year on year. Where here, there's a move toward establishing a basic skill set prior to being allowed to operate on the patient."

Dr. Laura Haubner, a pediatrician and director of the centre's virtual patient care centre, said working on the high-tech mannequins, particularly the ones depicting newborns, is valuable for getting students accustomed to working in teams and communicating with each other in crisis situations. Many errors occur because medical teams don't communicate properly with each other about equipment and procedures, which can delay stabilizing infants in distress.

"That's how adults learn," she said. "Adults don't learn best from sitting through endless 'Death by PowerPoint,' as we call it. They learn by doing, evaluating what they did and going back and adjusting their methods and trying it again."

Dr. Darrell Kirch, president of the independent Association of American Medical Colleges, predicts the USF centre will become a "destination learning centre" for physicians. Kirch, who toured the building January, calls the technology "dazzling."

"Ten to 15 years ago there were virtually no simulation centres of any kind in the U.S.," Kirch said. "The technology started rapidly advancing, and more and more institutions developed smaller-scaled efforts. Often it would be a few mannequins in one room. The (USF) centre is larger and more technologically sophisticated than any I've seen. It's very, very impressive."

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Follow Mitch Stacy on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/mitchstacy .

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