A Wii Warm-Up Hones Surgical Skills

You might think it a bad idea for trainee surgeons to play games on the Nintendo Wii when they should be studying, but it might be time well spent.

Kanav Kahol and Marshall Smith of the Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, have found that surgical residents performed better during simulated surgery after playing on the Wii console. They put it down to the console's novel "Wiimote" control system, which allows players to direct on-screen action using a wireless wand that detects acceleration in three dimensions.

Now they are designing Wii software that will accurately simulate surgical procedures. A training platform based on the console, which costs about $250, might be more practical for trainee surgeons in the developing world than traditional virtual training tools, which typically cost a great deal more.

To test how the Wii affected surgical skill, the researchers asked eight trainee doctors to play it for an hour before performing a virtual surgery. They used a training tool called ProMIS, which simulates a patient's body in 3D and tracks the surgeon's movements as they operate. They fed the movements to an algorithm which scores the virtual surgeon on a range of factors. Wii-playing residents scored 48 per cent higher on tool control and performance than those without the Wii warm-up.

The researchers also found that some games - such as Marble Mania, in which the player guides a marble through a 3D obstacle course - are especially good because players must use small, precise movements of the wand. Others were less useful: "You don't gain a lot from swinging an imaginary tennis racket," says Kahol.

James Rosser of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York had previously found that video games can also improve the dexterity crucial to performing minimally invasive surgery (Archives of Surgery, vol 142, p 18).

Kahol and Smith believe that the Wii has the most potential of any console for trainee surgeons. They tracked participants' hand motions while playing Wii and during virtual surgery, using a glove laced with motion sensors, and showed that the motions were very similar. "The whole point about surgery is to execute small, finely controlled movements with your hands, and that is exactly what you get playing Wii," says Kahol.

"The small, finely controlled movements of surgery are what you get playing Wii"He and Smith will be presenting their results at the Medicine Meets Virtual Reality conference in California later this month.