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SMU Research is Fighting Cervical Cancer with Video Games

By Chesney Woodchek |

Gaming technology could be the key to saving women from cervical cancer in Africa. Although cervical cancer is one of the most treatable forms of cancer, it is the killer of more women in Zambia than any other disease. In fact, one in five cervical cancer deaths worldwide occurs in sub-Saharan Africa. This is mostly due to a critical shortage of trained surgeons, which means that women who have been diagnosed often wait months to receive hysterectomies while their tumors grow and progress.

But with the introduction of relatively simple video game technology, this may change. The game has the potential to significantly speed up surgical training, which will increase the number of surgeons who can save the lives of women suffering from a curable disease. This technology will give surgeons the opportunity to practice the procedure virtually before training with a mentor surgeon during an actual medical procedure.

Using virtual reality, the surgery training costs less than $1,000 per training station. With a VR headset and hand controllers linked to software on a laptop computer, the simulation models the surgical theater in Lusaka, Zambia. There is a life-size, virtual patient and structure that enables the surgeon to make an incision, cut and suture arteries and veins, and even preform a radical hysterectomy.

During the pilot tests with novice surgeons, researchers found that surgeons became more efficient with their time and movements in just six 20-minute virtual reality training sessions. The conclusion was that VR pre-training for a surgical procedure can help train surgeons and gynecologists in less time and using fewer resources, saving significant costs. All the research results were published in May in the Journal of Global Oncology.

Dr. Eric Bing, an SMU professor of global health and former director of health at the George W. Bush Institute and Dr. Anthony Cuevas, SMU director of instructional design and clinical professor led the research. Dr. Bing has created and managed innovative health programs for Africa, the Caribbean, and South America while Cuevas’ research includes the design and integration of the game, simulations, VR, and AR into instruction.

“Radical abdominal hysterectomy is central to the treatment of early-stage invasive cancer of the cervix, a disease whose burden is the greatest in the world’s poorest countries,” says Dr. Bing via release. “Two of the major challenges in developing surgeons to perform the procedure are the time required to train surgeons and the availability of mentors. Low-cost VR may represent one of the solutions to increasing access to surgical cancer care globally.”

Other researchers include Dr. Groesbeck Parham, a professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and head of the CIDRZ Cervical Cancer Prevention Program in Lusaka, Zambia. Dr. Richard Sullivan also served as part of the team. He is a professor of cancer and global health, director of the Institute of Cancer Policy and Co-Director of Conflict and Health Research Group at the Kings College in London, England.