Robotic Rectums Give Docs a Feel for Prostates

Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in the U.S., so it's important that doctors know how to do manual exams well. But there aren't always a lot of volunteers for them to practice on. Imperial College of London

If a person giving a demonstration asks for a volunteer, consider their profession. A sommelier? Jump up immediately. A hypnotist? Hands up — sounds fun! A proctologist? Fake a phone call.

While it may not be fun for doctor or volunteer, learning how to do a rectal exam to screen for prostate cancer requires some real-life experience. Although blood tests can screen for some abnormality, doctors also rely on a manual exam to feel irregularities within the prostate gland. That requires the doctor to insert a finger in the rectum, and judge the size and shape of the prostate and rectal walls, which means that the medical professionals need to have learned the variations of normal and abnormal prostates from experience.

Not surprisingly, there aren't a lot of people volunteering to be teaching tools for such a task. So enterprising researchers in the United Kingdom have created a robotic rectum to allow medical professionals to learn the subtleties of both normal and abnormal rectums and prostates. Not only does the robotic model simulate pressure and movement, it shows an interface on the screen so that an instructor can watch the "internal" process to correct or hone the technique of the student — an advantage you couldn't get with a real-life volunteer. It allows for a variety of anatomical differences, which gives doctors a literal feel for diverse healthy and abnormal patient populations. 

And getting an accurate exam is extremely important. After non-melanoma skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis for men in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So if you're avoiding the exam due to nerves, keep in mind it's a seconds-long process, and that doctors now have an easy way to practice the most comfortable way to do it.