The cleverest doll in Britain teaches doctors their job

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The Independent Online
It has a pulse and blood pressure and breathes exactly like a human. Everything bar the unconvincing plastic body is as life-like as modern technology can make it.

Today, Sir Kenneth Calman, the chief medical adviser, will unveil Britain's first "human patient simulator" at the newly formed Bristol Medical Simulation Centre. A new era in medical training will begin.

The aim of the centre, which will be one of the most advanced in the world, is to improve training for doctors, anaesthetists, paramedics and the emergency services by simulating real-life crises.

At a cost of almost pounds 1m, it is a venture funded by the Special Trustees for the United Bristol Hospitals, a charitable foundation, with the United Bristol Healthcare Trust (UBHT) and the University of Bristol.

Professor Cedric Prys-Roberts, the president of the Royal College of Anaesthetists who also works in Bristol, said: "The potential is very exciting. All of us - for any one of us could be a patient tomorrow - would be immensely reassured to know that the professionals caring for us have actually rehearsed the particular incident which could happen in the operating theatre or on the ward."

The centre has a full mock operating theatre with the "living" mannequin, which can be resuscitated like a human and ordinary medical equipment can be used on it. The centre can also be transformed into a simulation intensive-care unit or even a mock road accident site.

Most importantly, the centre can be set up to recreate rare medical crises which a doctor or anaesthetist might see only once in a lifetime.

Dr David Wilkins, the university's consultant lecturer in anaesthetics who will use the centre for teaching, said that he was wary of over-selling the idea. But if the model became widely used, it could significantly improve training for doctors at a time when the cuts in junior doctors' hours were reducing the amount of face-to-face time they could spend with real patients.

"More and more things will have to be imparted by means other than being in an actual operating theatre," Dr Wilkins said.

The idea stemmed from research carried out in the United States modelled on crisis management practices and simulators used in the airline industry. While these were now very advanced for airlines, Dr Wilkins said that only the peace dividend of the end of the Cold War had encouraged manufacturers to explore the possibilities for medicine.

Two years ago, the Royal College of Anaesthetists sent Dr Wilkins and a colleague to investigate developments in the US. They returned with a proposal to bring the best of American practice together in Britain.

Dr Wilkins and Professor Prys-Roberts were aware that the city's Special Trustees might have the capital funds to back such a project, and the agreed to do so.

The centre will have to be self-financing. But bodies including the Avon Ambulance Trust and medical equipment manufacturers have already expressed interest in using it.

Dr Wilkins said it would be difficult to prove that the centre could cut the likelihood of medical disasters. But with the number of legal actions against the National Health Service rising, the price of training, though expensive, might prove cheaper than negligence pay-outs.