Surgeons around the world are to hone their skills with the help of a new app developed in Scotland amid concern that access to training resources has been inadequate due to the public health crisis.

The National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS) – a group of industry-led manufacturing research and development facilities – is behind the augmented reality (AR) software, which will guide trainee surgeons as they perform “surgery” on hyper-real 3D-printed models of human organs.

It is hoped the immersive technology will eliminate the need for trainees to rely on classroom cadavers – a resource that has become limited during the pandemic – to practice surgery. Cadavers are dead bodies used for medical research.

The project will also remove barriers to training by allowing surgeons to practice vital lifesaving skills at home and help medical professionals in less developed areas of the world where facilities are scarce or non-existent.

The AR technology, accessible via a smartphone app, is used to scan physical models of organs made from hyper-realistic aqua gel, designed to mimic the texture of human tissue.

This scan generates a digital representation of the organ, which is displayed on the trainee’s phone and provides instructions that feedback when a procedure is successfully completed. Trainees can also film their work for review from experienced surgical trainers.

Backed by Innovate UK’s ‘sustainable innovation fund’, the NMIS has already distributed 160 kits to the UK and three countries in Africa, which consist of 3D-printed models of human organs, surgical instruments, and a mobile phone holder. Discussions are ongoing for other territories around the globe.

Project partners working with the consortium to deliver the technology include industry-lead Organlike, which has produced the models of organs, along with NHS Highland, The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Vivolution, KWWK, 4c Engineering and Aseptium. 

Danny McMahon, digital and metrology lead at the NMIS, said: “Our software works along with Organlike’s hyper-real models to provide guidance and training, as well as feedback on performance. While there is no replacement for the real thing, we can help prepare trainees for taking the next step in their training.

“Although coronavirus restrictions are lifting, we expect there to be an increasing demand for a more flexible approach to surgical training going forward. The application for this technology extends far beyond Scotland and although it’s still relatively early days for the project we are already excited about its potential.”

Professor Will Shu, founder and director of Organlike, said: “Augmented reality is the perfect complementary technology to accompany our models and this partnership is really exciting. With in person learning limited by restrictions on access to facilities and resources, this technology could help trainee surgeons who can’t currently access facilities to work in their own space. Our hope is that our product will form an important part of future training programmes across the world.”

Professor Angus Watson, member of the council of The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, added: “Surgical simulation represents the future for our profession. The public expect us to uphold the highest standards of surgical skill and care and the College has been at the forefront of this for over 500 years.  I am particularly proud that we can make training opportunities equitable across the globe and I am delighted that this kit will be available both in Scotland and in Africa.”