Mercer Smart Tools
UNM Orthopaedics Hand Surgeon Dr. Deana Mercer drills into synthetic bone.

The University of New Mexico’s (UNM) Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation is using high-tech drill sensors, motion-capture technology and haptic feedback to monitor orthopaedic surgery training as participants in an unprecedented research study to ensure quality improvements in surgical training. The study’s long-term goal is to capture data from residents-in-training and experienced faculty alike using smart surgical tools at medical schools throughout the Southwest over a five-year period.

Historically orthopaedic training has been conducted in the operating room – effective for simple fractures, but riskier in complicated cases. However, in 2013 the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgeons and American Medical Association’s Residency Review Committee for Orthopaedic Surgery required that residents take formal motor skills training outside the operating room.

The research team officially launched its collaborative study at a trauma skills course sponsored by the Southwest Orthopaedic Trauma Association for first-year orthopaedic residents this May in Phoenix, AZ. Study participants include orthopaedic resident surgeons from UNM, as well as residents from medical schools in Texas and Arizona.

“We’ve taken existing surgical devices like saws and drills and adapted them into ‘smart’ tools by adding sensors that provide feedback on surgeon performance,” says Christina Salas, PhD, a faculty member in UNM’s Orthopaedics Research Division. “What makes our research unique is the software we’ve incorporated with haptic technology to allow tactile feedback to study participants.”

When synched up with the smart tools, the software enables participants to sense forces, vibrations or motions – similar to technology used in flight simulation training. Even when training with synthetic bones, Salas notes that “the software lets us manipulate resulting sensations that mimic the various bone densities that surgeons can experience given a patient’s age or condition.”

Next steps for the UNM Orthopaedics research team include presenting an abstract on its Smart Surgical Tools study at the Western Orthopaedic Association’s 79th Annual Meeting this summer and applying for National Institutes of Health funding so its pioneering research can continue regionally.