Image courtesy of Gaumard Scientific
Birth of an Industry
Medical simulators in general are nothing new. Most of us have seen a synthetic (or perhaps real) skeleton in a classroom setting, or replicas of various body parts in a doctor's office that show how the human body works. These models are great educational tools for teaching anatomy, but they can't prepare a student for the reality of the delivery room.
One of the first modern birth simulators came about in 1949. During the aftermath of World War II, a military surgeon "recognized how polymers used in reconstructive and battlefield surgery could be used to create simulators for health care education," and a new teaching methodology was born [source: Gaumard]. Early simulators weren't much more than a rubber model of a woman's anatomy. Over the years, they gradually increased in complexity as technology advanced. The miniaturization of electronics and computer chips allowed developers to take simulators to a whole new level of realism.
In the 1990s, these digital delivery systems came to be called robot birth simulators. By 2000, Gaumard Scientific, which pioneered the original birth simulator, introduced one of the most popular simulators on the market: Noelle. In 2011, Noelle cost anywhere from $2,000 for a simple model to more than $60,000 for a fully-loaded, sophisticated robot. While that may seem expensive, Noelle can simulate a wide variety of childbirth complications that a student would normally only encounter in real-world situations where lack of experience can be a significant handicap.
In 2005, another high-end contender in the simulator arena arrived in the form of BirthSIM, produced by Laboratoire Ampère in Lyon, France. While comparable in price to the tricked-out Noelle, BirthSIM focuses entirely on educating medical personnel in the proper use of forceps. For the price, you might think it would or should do more, but improper use of forceps can cause serious, permanent and potentially fatal damage to a baby during delivery. BirthSIM combines real forceps with a virtual imaging system to help obstetricians get invaluable practice.
Not all birth simulators are high-tech and expensive. Some simulators cost only a few hundred dollars and can be useful for relatively simple simulations. Most of these table-top models replicate basic birthing scenarios and can't be adapted to challenge students with surprise complications the way a simulator like Noelle can.
At this point, it's worth taking a closer look at the status of birth simulators in medical education.