Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Art and Science of Touch

Recently one of our own Women Surgeons, Dr. Carla Pugh, was an invited speaker at the popular TEDMED 2014 event.  In the session “Play is not a waste of time,” Dr. Pugh discussed Haptic Learning – the Art and Science of Touch – and her own experience with integrating this concept in surgical education.

Dr. Pugh started her talk with a powerful recollection of a difficult procedure in the emergency room – a thoracotomy. Dr. Pugh noted something made her seriously worried: the resident working with her seemed to have missed a critical finding while leading the thoracotomy, cardiac massage, and evaluation of the patient.

“As a surgical educator I am worried why my resident missed the blood clot around the heart, and things were moving so quickly that there was no time to discuss this great learning opportunity.”

I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Pugh to discuss her TEDMED talk and more.

In regards to the education opportunity that was missed with the resident, Dr. Pugh notes that providing feedback to residents is not built into the system. “The goal is to take care of patients & make money... Nobody gets paid to teach. Feedback is not built into the system... People who enjoy teaching do it, but it is not well-integrated. How do you teach residents how to be assertive? How to learn points of the operation? This is something that happens every day in medicine."

Unfortunately, Dr. Pugh has noted that this is something that has not changed since even her days in surgical residency. Despite high expectations, she notes that it is rare for people to provide direct detailed information/feedback.

This is how she got into Haptics.

Dr. Pugh holds a patent to a sensorized clinical exam model. She landed her first patent in 1998 during her postgraduate studies at Stanford University. The models can sense aspects of the physical exam such as tactile technique. One exciting finding to be published soon, was a model adapted for the clinical breast exam (CBE).

Dr. Pugh’s team was collecting data on CBE from experienced clinicians to help identify which technique was most sensitive to detect a mass in the breast. The data was supposed to help teach medical students the appropriate technique for CBE. A surprise finding was that 10-15% of clinicians were missing the mass in the model! Upon review of the data from her sensorized model, it was found that a specific examination technique was associated with being more likely to miss the mass. 

Dr. Pugh notes, "We must go beyond the paper and pencil test." The technology is now available to help assess clinical exam and surgical skills. Incorporating this type of feedback into medical education and continuing medical education will likely make a big difference for patients.

Dr. Pugh grew up in Berkeley, California, and has long been interested in science and medicine. At 5 years old she received her first stethoscope and "was listening to people's ankles at the grocery store." As a child she had her first run-in with the power of touch “I was always taking things apart,” she notes. It was during one of these play sessions in the living room, she was electrocuted at 5 years old. “My hand was stiff!”

How do I get involved?

Dr. Pugh has an active research lab, which usually consists of engineering students. She has had two residents working in her lab. In addition to traditional surgical meetings, Dr. Pugh attends conferences usually dominated by engineers, like NEXTMED where Medicine Meets Virtual Reality.

Thank you, Dr. Pugh, for reminding us to dream big and never forget the art and science of touch.


Minerva A. Romero Arenas, MD, MPH is a General Surgery Resident at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore. She recently completed a research fellowship in the Dept. of Surgical Oncology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX.  She received her MD and her MPH from The University of Arizona College of Medicine and the Zuckerman College of Public Health in 2009. She studied Cell Biology and French at Arizona State University as an undergraduate. 

Her interests include surgical oncology & endocrinology, global health, health disparities, quality improvement, and genomics. A native of Mexico City, Mexico, Dr. Romero Arenas is passionate about recruiting the next generation of surgeons and is involved in mentoring through various organizations.

She enjoys fine arts, films, gastronomy, and sports. She enjoys jogging, swimming, and kickboxing. Most importantly, Dr. Romero Arenas treasures spending time with her family and loved ones.

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