Tomorrow’s surgeons are today’s video gamers

As a young medical student I remember the arrival of the first video arcade games very clearly: Asteroids, Space Invaders and Pacman.

I spent whatever spare cash I had on them, never playing long enough to be any good, or rich enough to get any better. When I bought my first computer in my late-twenties, I relived my excitement with the newest computer games, spending a disproportionate amount of time long into many a night. I was hooked.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was doing myself a major favor.  Now, twenty five years later, I spend several hours a week still staring at a video screen, manipulating instruments, but this time with a living, feeling, bleeding human being under my hands, with stakes far higher than virtual self destruction.

Research shows that surgeons of the modern era derive much benefit from video games in enhancing hand-eye coordination and spatial orientation. How much more difficult learning my speciality as an ENT surgeon would have been if not for those early days spent gaming! My work involves video camera telescopic surgery in complicated, three dimensional (3D) regions – the sinuses – represented on two dimensional (2D) screens.

Within the last six months I had to develop new skills in applying endoscopic techniques in 2D to surgery of the middle ear, traditionally done using a microscope in 3D.

But my inflated opinion of my gaming skill vanishes when I watch my teenage son. He, like me, has become a gaming enthusiast. But here the comparison ends. The modern games demand dexterity and skill far beyond that I ever acquired, and he started developing them as soon as he could sit in front of a computer. His hands fly across the keyboard, operating mouse at the same time, his eyes never leaving the screen.

Research again has shown that, for all the worries about violence and other negative influences, gaming develops excellent coordination, spatial awareness, problem solving and decision making qualities at an early age. These are all highly desirable in a surgeon.

So, assuming he wants to be a surgeon one day, how will these skills be useful in 20 years’ time?

It’s highly unlikely the surgeon of the future will need to touch a patient physically on the operating table. Advanced imaging and 3D reconstruction real time technology — faster than today’s MRI scanners — will enable robots to do the majority of the surgery, finding their way around the body’s anatomy at speeds inconceivable today.

Think of how electronic circuit boards used to be laid out and soldered by hand, a time consuming and laborious process. Now, robots do it all at speeds unthinkable in comparison, faster than the eye can see. I see similar speeds by surgical robots dissecting, coagulating, and suturing, with procedures taking seconds rather than minutes, and minutes rather than hours. Imagine a blood vessel being joined to another in between heart beats.

And here is where the surgeon of the future will be busy, sitting at a computer terminal, opposite a 3D image on a video screen, guiding and instructing the robots in real time – expose that, cut this, suture that. Exactly the same skills demanded of modern gamers.

Kids, if ever you need a reason to get your folks to buy you the latest PS3 or Xbox, this may be it.

Martin Young is an otolaryngologist and founder and CEO of ConsentCare.

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