Handy Tool Trains Surgeons

Electronic gloves help transfer knowledge from master surgeons to students.

Researchers from Western Sydney University, in consultation with Liverpool Hospital, have developed tools to help trainee surgeons master intricate surgical procedures.

Gough Lui, a biomedical engineer at Western’s MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development, has worked closely with Liverpool Hospital for a number of years. “We get engineers to sit in with clinicians to identify problems and inspire solutions that can really make a difference,” he says. In one of these sessions, Clinical Dean and Foundation Professor of Surgery and Colorectal Surgery, Professor Les Bokey, discussed with Lui the possibility of training surgeons in a more objective and evidence-based manner to ensure evidence-based competency.

A big hurdle is that the surgical skills needed now are more complex than in previous decades. Surgeons must master open surgery, keyhole surgery with cameras, and robotic surgery, for instance. But while techniques have advanced, teaching methods have not greatly changed. In training, an experienced surgeon watches over the student’s shoulder, giving feedback. “Often they say, ‘that wasn’t very good,’ but can’t concretely articulate what is wrong,” says Lui. “That’s very frustrating when you’re trying to master a skill, but not seeing a way forward.”

One positive advance in training has been that students can now practise on simulators. But these are hugely expensive, and trainees in typical hospitals rarely have easy access.

To solve the problem, Lui has developed surgical gloves containing electronics to record the subtle, fast and controlled hand movements of skilled surgeons. When worn by students, the gloves can monitor how their hand motions differ from the experts’. Lui hopes that the gloves will eventually be coupled with a smartphone app, so trainees can practice tasks at home, for as little as $100 — a fraction of the cost of a simulator.

Need to know

  • The surgical skills needed today are more complex than in previous decades.
  • Gough Lui and the team at MARCS have developed electronic gloves to help trainees learn from the movements of skilled surgeons.
  • The gloves have proven popular with students.

Creating the perfect gloves is a work in progress. At first, Lui placed electronics on the back of the glove, to detect acceleration and hand orientation, and added force-sensors in the fingertips. But experienced surgeons reported that they reduced their touch sensitivity and were too bulky, hindering movement. Lui has looked at alternatives including the use of force sensors located further up the forearm and motion sensors on the back of the hand for an upgraded version, before finally settling on a design involving a mix of flexible electronics that has sensors for each segment of the finger.

“Now we have a tool that can assist in objectively measuring the intricate hand manoeuvres,” says Bokey. Trainees who have participated in the development of the prototype can readily appreciate their potential contribution to training. Lui quips that students even loved the clunky early version. “They are excited because they can see the promise,” he adds.

Lui is working out how best to deliver useful instructions to trainees. The gloves collect motion data and relay them to a screen, where even the tiniest jitters are visualized. This can be distracting to students concentrating on difficult tasks. Alternatives include ‘haptic’ feedback — whereby the fingertips vibrate — or audio feedback to guide trainees along the right path. But Lui is cautious in case students become overly reliant on the technology. “In reality, human debriefing is always better than computer feedback alone,” he says. “This is not a replacement for trainers, but it will augment their ability to give advice.”

Concept validation trials have been underway, with the latest flexible iteration due for trial in early-2023, says Lui. If successful, the gloves could have unexpected uses. “We’ve already had requests from musicians asking if these gloves could help people become more skilled performers,” says Lui. “They could have a wider impact than we ever hoped.”

Meet the Academic | Dr Gough Lui

Gough graduated with a PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering from UNSW in 2016 under APA, ERA and ARENA scholarships, as well as first-class honours in Photovoltaics and Solar Energy from UNSW in 2011, starting as a Co-Op Scholar in Electrical Engineering. Previously, he researched photovoltaic-powered point-of-use water disinfection using ultraviolet LEDs, Wi-Fi positioning systems (under a Taste of Research scholarship) and was a laboratory demonstrator for digital and embedded systems design at UNSW. Gough was also formerly a research assistant and writing fellow with the Water Research Centre at UNSW.

Highly passionate about technology and solving interdisciplinary challenges, he seeks to better the world by applying his wide-ranging skill-set in various areas of engineering to solve problems and make an impact in the biomedical space. Gough is also involved as an "engineer in residence" at Liverpool Hospital to foster new collaborations between clinicians and MARCS/BENS.


This research was supported by the South West Institute for Robotics and Automation in Health, the South Western Sydney Local Health District, and the James N. Kirby Foundation.

© Ken Leanfore
Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.