Researchers assess surgical skill by measuring clinician sweat

Monitoring a surgeon's perspiration level can be an effective tool for assessing surgical competency, according to a study published in the Journal of Surgical Education.

Electrical activity across the skin increases under psychological or physiological stimulation. As water is a good electrical conductor, glands are triggered to produce sweat and facilitate electrodermal activity during these moments.

A research team at the University of Missouri School of Medicine in Columbia sought to establish an effective method of assessing surgical skill without reliance on subjective observation by monitoring perspiration levels on surgeons' skin during procedures. The team monitored the electrodermal activity of 14 general surgery residents and five faculty physicians over the course of 130 surgical procedures.

"Our initial findings indicated that at crucial points during the procedures, residents' EDA increased as much as 20 times more than experienced faculty performing the same surgery," said lead author Jacob Quick, MD, assistant professor of acute care surgery at the MU School of Medicine. "However, over the course of the study, and as their proficiency developed, surgical residents' EDA levels began to lower in accordance with their experience."

While the results of the study suggest this could be a viable method for the assessment of clinical skill, it is not likely to become standard any time soon.

"It can be cost prohibitive … while the sensors are reusable, initial equipment costs can be as much as $10,000," said Dr. Quick.. "Additionally, our study was limited to 14 resident physicians at a single medical center. However, this objective measure of surgical ability could have far-reaching implications on surgical education in the future.

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