Video: Medical school with dummies

By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/20/2005 8:42:03 PM ET 2005-06-21T00:42:03

PITTSBURGH — At medical schools around the country, students practice treatments that can be life-saving but also difficult and dangerous for the patients. But at the University of Pittsburgh's Wiser Center, no one is put at risk because the "patients" are robotic dummies.

Dr. Susan Dunmire, an instructor, tests the students' abilities. She runs the computer controlling the robot and provides the voice.

"Help me! I don't feel well!" says Dunmire in her robot voice as students get to work.

How real are the robots? Their pulse rate, heart rhythm and other signs of health can be measured, and they respond to treatment.

Dr. JohnSchaeffer, who developed much of the technology, demonstrated for NBC News an emergency in which the patient's throat swells during anesthesia, cutting off oxygen and risking death.

"I've got a block up in here somewhere, and if this technique doesn't work, I'm going to have to go down farther," he says while working on the robot.

"Well, it's not getting me anywhere," he continues. "So, I've tried two techniques above the vocal cords, so now I have to take it below the vocal cords with a surgical procedure, and I've got to do it quickly."

Afterward, a computer display immediately evaluates his performance. And he can quickly teach a novice to shock a patient back to life.

The robotic center even includes a woman who gives birth and a sick child.

The medical students love the robot training.

"You can read and sit in a lecture as much as you want, but you'll never really get it until you're actually doing it," says one. "Our biggest fear is that we're going to be on night call alone, walk into a room, and not know what to do."

But a big issue is whether these simulators should be used to test the skills of older doctors, the way airline pilots must regularly prove their skills in cockpit simulators.

"Some of these doctors have been in practice 20 to 30 years," says Schaeffer. "And then there's even some questions, if it's a new technology, can they even learn it comfortably?"

Still, most experts believe that robotic simulators are the future for training young doctors and testing the skills of the older ones.

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