Surgery Simulation: Comparing Cadavers, Dummies, and Virtual Surgery


Touchscreen Surgery vs. Haptic Surgery Simulations

With the proliferation of touchscreen devices like phones and tablets, getting “hands on” surgical training is easier and less expensive than ever. After all, you can view a perfect 3D render of the body and zoom in on parts necessary for study and practice, with infinite information attached. Compare that with old-school haptic tools like medical dummies and cadavers, and they might seem a bit more versatile. But is that the case?


Touchscreen Surgery Simulation: Hands-On Or Not?

The main benefits of touchscreen surgery is how inexpensive and scalable it is. 3D renders can be produced or bought fairly cheaply, and reused over and over again, compared with the manufacturing costs of physical training dummies. You can use and reuse the simulations, across any number of students. Plus, with one “tool,” potentially any procedure is available, compared with specialized dummies. There are no materials, no tools, and no cleanup.


How does app-based surgical training work? There are plenty of solutions out there, but they all essentially function the same way:

  • Show a video of the surgery

  • Provide interactive explainer text

  • Guide the “player” through step-by-step, teaching patterns along the way

  • Each step involves touching and tracing along appropriate rendered body parts to show the motions and simulate different tools

  • Take the player through a run of the entire operation without a guide to test memorization


Unfortunately, at the end of the day, touchscreen solutions are more “interactive textbook” than true replacement for traditional training methods. While a step above say a mouse and keyboard, the training is still too removed from actual actions and motions taken during surgery.


Traditional Training Dummies: Your Prosthetic Partner

By Official Navy Page from United States of America U.S. Navy Chief Joshua Treadwell/U.S. Navy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Official Navy Page from United States of America U.S. Navy Chief Joshua Treadwell/U.S. Navy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There’s a reason plastic prosthetic torsos, limbs and heads have been the medical student standard for so long. They give the approximation of size and shape, and bring much-needed physicality to a student’s training. They look fairly realistic, and depending on the university’s budget, the models might have realistic textures and resistance built in as well. Many updates have come as time has gone on.


Importantly, they’re tailorable to specific procedures, so you don’t need to use a whole dummy for operations on one part of the body. Dummies tend to be fully reusable too, so while the upfront cost can be massive, an institution can get their money’s worth over time. It’s currently the next best thing for training compared with a cadaver.


However, they have their downsides. The costs of materials and labor to produce them can be exorbitant, even with advances in 3D printing technology. While a bulk order might make good fiscal sense, replacements can be pricey, meaning the more realistic models that come out might be out of reach or hard to justify. As with anything physical, they can be broken, and if there’s one thing that students just starting their training do, it’s make mistakes.


Still, cost or lack of upgradability aside, a good dummy makes all students smarter.


Human Cadavers: The Scientist’s True Test

By Monirb [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

By Monirb [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

No matter what, nothing will be as close to the real deal as working on real human tissue in a real human form, preserved, prepped and donated to the cause of science. Cadavers prepare medical students for certain sensations that nothing else can match. The sense of smell, the feeling of interacting with biological tissue. The heft of manipulating an “unconscious” human body. Obviously, no matter what, at some point in a surgeon’s training, they will have to go face-to-face with bodies.


However, there are some true downsides to the cadaver. For one, they are fairly expensive, and not mass producible by nature. Each one requires resource-heavy embalming just to preserve for shipment and usage, and even then they require large cold storage throughout their “life.” Plus, they’re “one-and-done,” and cannot be reused. For example, only one open heart surgery can be performed on a cadaver.


While the use of cadavers is a scientific tradition dating back hundreds of years, their lack of sustainability and expense makes them ripe for replacement.


Virtual Reality + Haptic Feedback: Scalable Surgical Simulation


The touchscreen method from the start of this post isn’t the only virtual surgery training method. Virtual reality (VR) has made strides in creating immersive operating rooms with realistic patients, all scaled accurately to the student. Still, isn’t that a bit ethereal, much like the app-based surgery?


Not quite - we at ImmersiveTouch have integrated immersive virtual reality operating environments with a haptic feedback device that accurately simulates the shape, size, texture, and resistance of different body parts and tissues, while acting as any surgical tool a student might need. This in hand, every surgery becomes “real”, every simulation becomes hands-on, and can be scaled easily to any number of students and any amount of a growing library of practice procedures. No materials to waste, no tools to clean, and a low price per unit. It can be tailored to specific procedures and body parts without limits, and be used by professors to deliver didactics and practical lessons all at once to many students at a time.


Best of all, it has shown to work better than a lecture. Students using a 15-minute virtual surgery prep had 53.7% less errors than those who got a standard lecture when performing a real procedure.


Key Takeaways

Though touchscreens are cheaper to procure and available everywhere, they don’t make a good case for replacing traditional cadavers and dummies. However, the emerging realm of low-cost consumer-grade VR with specialized haptic feedback add-ons can replace these old methods with higher levels of student success and better clinical outcomes.