For medical students, it can be a nerve-wracking prospect to administer intimate exams to patients.
A group of scientists at the University of Florida, Drexel University and the University of Wisconsin jointly developed new technology to help medical students hone their skills at prostate and breast examinations. Their research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The result of four years of hard work? A robotic butt named Patrick, who delivers instantaneous feedback to students about the prostate exam he's receiving.
Patrick comes equipped with four sensors, and its highly-visual software can inform students whether they're applying optimal pressure. He might inform the student if the pressure is too soft or if they have neglected to cover the whole prostate.
It's not just about perfecting their technique; students can also use Patrick to practice their bedside manner.
Dr. Benjamin Lok, the lead designer on the project, said the experience is designed to mirror a typical doctor-patient interaction. Patrick is set up in an exam room. Students walk in, greet the patient, and ask routine questions about pain levels and symptoms (Patrick always has trouble urinating), as well as family and medication history.
"Our goal is to get students more comfortable with these mortifying scenarios," said Dr. Benjamin Lok, the professor who leads the research. "There aren't enough opportunities for students to practice, which causes them a lot of anxiety."
Dr. Lok said Patrick is initially reluctant to receive a prostate exam. But the students are taught to communicate the necessity of the exam.
Today, many medical schools today pay a lot of money to hire professional actors who are willing to go through training and get examined repeatedly by students. Lok doesn't expect that robots can replace these human actors anytime soon.
But he hopes that students will practice routinely on Patrick before approaching a real person.
Patrick is already in use at the University of Florida and Drexel University. The research team is hoping to commercialize the technology and market it to more schools, as well as further develop the artificial intelligence (AI) technology.
"In future," Lok said, "we want to make these conversations more realistic and provide a deeper challenge for students."