Got Game? How about Specializing in Veterinary Surgery?

May 7, 2014

PVM Study of Teaching Techniques Links Video Game Experience with Laparoscopic Surgery Ability

Parents who are used to just throwing up their hands in response to their children’s penchant for playing video games might take note of a recently published Purdue Veterinary Medicine study that links video gaming experience with skills needed to perform laparoscopic surgery.  The study involved 29 Purdue veterinary medicine students in their junior year.  It was conducted by a team of PVM faculty, led by Dr. Heather Towle Millard (PU DVM 2003), clinical assistant professor of small animal surgery.  She was motivated by her passion to find new and creative approaches to teaching veterinary students the skills they need to perform surgery.

When her colleague, Dr. Lyn Freeman, PVM associate professor of small animal surgery, handed her an article about a study that tested skills using devices called “laparoscopic box trainers,” Dr. Millard realized there was an affordable way to see whether findings from studies that have been done in human medicine would hold true in veterinary medicine.  The box trainers are simply constructed with inexpensive materials and enable students to practice their remote control skills using long instruments and a video monitor.  “Studies from human medicine showed that these box trainers are just as good as the fancy $30,000 to $50,000 simulators,” Dr. Millard said.  So she and her team devised a plan to evaluate how scores in carefully selected video games correlated with students’ performance using the box trainers.

Previous findings from studies in human medicine would make any parent with a video game-loving child sit up and take note.  “One author found that surgeons who play video games greater than three hours per week had 37 percent fewer errors, were 27 percent faster, and scored 42 percent better in laparoscopic box trainers than those with no video game experience,” Dr. Towle explained.  “Another study showed that surgeons who did well on laparoscopic box trainers performed better in the operating room.”

With those results in mind, Dr. Millard had just the right people to help her determine whether veterinary students would demonstrate comparable improvement.  Among her research team members was her husband, Dr. Ralph Millard, PVM clinical assistant professor of small animal surgery, who she describes as the “video gamer.” He found the right types of video games to use in the study.  “We strategically had to pick the video games so that they would correlate with the skills that we were trying to aim for…And that was hard,” Dr. Heather Millard explained.  “I’m saying to him, ‘ok, I want to test for moving in three dimensions in the box trainers…can you find a video game that is going to do something similar?’”

Veterinary student Caitlin Belding tests her skills with the laparoscopic box trainer.Questionnaires were used to weed out study candidates who had previous experience with those games.  Then, the 17 female and 12 male students who remained in the pool of candidates played the games in monitored sessions, and alternately tried their hand at the laparoscopic box trainers.  The other team members were Dr. Freeman, who provided the necessary expertise in the use of the box trainers, and Dr. Peter Constable, then head of the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences (now dean of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine), who helped with the statistical analysis.

The results were reported in the February 1 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA).  “The main outcome of this study was that students who scored higher on the test video games scored higher on the laparoscopic box trainers,” explained Dr. Millard.  However, she adds, as has been the case in similar studies in human medicine, “…there was no correlation to traditional surgery skill sets like suturing and drilling, things that a veterinary surgeon would do...” 

Nevertheless, Dr. Millard sees the connection between video gaming and the skills needed in laparoscopy as significant, in that they may provide a way to help identify students with strong potential for minimally invasive surgery.  “There are natural aptitudes that people have, and if they are inherent within them, it can give them a head start…A person can be super smart but then hand wise, speed wise, efficiency wise, they struggle, and it’s hard to foster significant improvement in someone who just doesn’t have those aptitudes,” Dr. Millard said. 

To shed more light on the correlation between video games and laparoscopic box trainers, Dr. Millard has plans to study such issues as whether previous video game playing experience or gender are factors.  Regardless of the outcomes, her research has become increasingly popular with the veterinary students.  “They had to volunteer to stay late to participate,” Dr. Millard explained.  “But lately, we have had even more students want to participate because the previous class told them, ‘hey, this is fun, you get to have pizza, listen to music and play video games and play with a scope’… so it worked out well.” 

Dr. Millard recognizes the full implications of these studies may not come to fruition for years, but her vision enables her to see and continue to pursue the possibilities.  “Let’s conquer this area and let’s see what we can do with it,” she said. “From basic laparoscopy, the next step is robotic surgery and that’s just another facet of my interest…and we’re probably 100 years from that in veterinary medicine, but maybe not…and that’s really cool.”

To view the complete abstract for the study, as published in JAVMA, click here

Drs. Heather Millard (left) and Lyn Freeman.

PVM Report | Spring 2014 | Mosaic View

Writer: Kevin Doerr,

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