College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences

Clemson University leads research to enhance surgical team dynamics in the age of robotics


New research at Clemson University is aimed at helping surgical teams adapt to how members work with each other and robots as new technology changes team dynamics in the operating room.

Jackie Cha

Jackie Cha, an assistant professor of industrial engineering, said recent advances in surgical robots have transformed how teams of humans and robots collaborate with each other. Some of those robots in labs are on the cusp of being able to independently perform surgical tasks but are not be fully autonomous.

“The goal of our research is to better understand how humans in the operating room and robots are going to team up,” she said. “We’re redefining how their teamwork and connections will evolve and what kind of cognitive and interpersonal skills will be needed to make sure those robotic surgeries are more safe, effective, and efficient. “

In traditional surgery, the whole team clusters around the patient, Cha said.

However, when robots are brought into the picture, teams tend to spread out across the operating room. Sometimes, a surgeon might even control a robot from outside the sterile zone, Cha said. Bulky devices may also be part of the setup, she said.

The physical separation and devices alter and can hinder communication between all members of the surgical team, including assistants, nurses, anesthesiologists, Cha said.

“There are, of course, many advantages for patients for robotic surgery because of the technological advancements,” Cha said. “But there are also challenges in terms of overall systems and workflows, as well as training because of the introduction of new and different technology.”

To learn more, the team plans to have surgical teams wear sensors to measure their behavior and physiology. That will help establish metrics to define and test how humans work with each other and robots, Cha said.

Then the team plans to take what they learn to develop and evaluate a decision-making aid that would help surgical teams improve their skills and efficiency.

Robots at various levels of autonomy will be involved in the research. The findings could eventually apply to other high-stakes, high-stress clinical environments other than the operating room, Cha said.

Cha is conducting the research as part of a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation.

The team is collaborating with clinicians at Prisma Health and medical students at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville.

The educational component of Cha’s CAREER award will focus on bridging clinical and engineering teams by teaching the medical students to better understand the engineering involved with robotics and teaching her engineering students the clinically relevant aspects that drive safer and more effective surgeries in the future, she said.

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