Meet Patrick, the model poised to improve prostate exams
By Dorothy Hagmajer
Of course, he’s programmed to be that way. While almost anyone can purchase a plastic replica of a posterior and practice giving a prostate exam, few models are able to provide medical students with crucial feedback — let alone carry a conversation.
“Typically, most people are not that excited about getting a prostate exam,” said Benjamin C. Lok, Ph.D., lead researcher and director of the Digital Arts and Sciences program. “An intimate exam is more than just the physical, cognitive and psychomotor skills. It’s also the social part.”
A medical professional’s bedside manner can make or break a doctor’s visit, especially one that places the patient and examiner in such close quarters. Putting the patient at ease sounds deceptively simple; in reality, this particular brand of social skill requires practice. Enter Patrick.
The model is part plastic posterior connected to sensors that detect force and part computerized patient. Before a medical student can conduct a prostate exam, he or she is required to speak with the simulated patient for 10 minutes. Once they transition to the prostate exam, the student must be able to multitask — examining the prostate while continuously answering Patrick’s questions and keeping him at ease.
Ordinarily, an observer would be unable to gauge the student’s performance inside the robot. Pressure application is a key aspect of the exam, and too much or too little can cause the patient discomfort.
“The model has force sensors along the prostate surface that enable us to detect the location and force applied when the students perform a prostate examination,” said Li-Ming Su, M.D., chief of the division of minimally invasive urologic surgery. “At the end of the evaluation, the model creates a graphical display on how well they examined the entire prostate gland.”
Afterward, students can see where they need to improve. Sometimes, it is the physical aspect; generally, it is the social one.
“Prostate exams are notoriously difficult to teach and equally difficult for students to appreciate and perfect as a skill set,” Su said. “With this model, not only can we ensure students are trained properly, but at the same time address the conversational and social component of this rather intimate part of the physical examination.”
As of 2015, a predicted one in seven men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime. With this in mind, undergoing a proper prostate examination in addition to a prostate specific antigen blood test is crucial to early detection of prostate cancer.
Lok’s research group conducted a study in 2013 that determined students performed better — and with more confidence — when allowed to practice with the virtual simulation.
“The next step is for these materials to be integrated and become part of a medical curriculum,” he said.
For now, the plastic posterior sits in a lab, waiting for its time to shine — ideally sooner, rather than later. After all, practice on Patrick makes perfect. No butts about it.