Every year, more than 170,000 children in the developing world are born with a cleft in their lip or palate – and sometimes both. This impairment goes far beyond a cosmetic issue. These children face numerous challenges to their health, survival, and well-being. They are at a higher risk of being malnourished or abandoned and are less likely to attend school than their peers.
The lack of trained local surgeons and expense of surgical care pose major obstacles to their receiving corrective surgery. There have been various approaches to tackling this issue, like sending medical missions trips to treat affected children or sending doctors from disadvantaged countries to the developed world to get trained, however these solutions are costly and unsustainable.
Smile Train, a leading international children’s organization in the cleft lip and palate repair world, has figured out a new “teach a man to fish” approach. They’ve developed a first-of-its-kind Virtual Surgery Simulator (VSS) – a freely available, web-accessible surgical simulator providing free instruction for cleft lip and palate repair from some of the world’s top surgeons.
According to Susannah Schaefer, Executive Vice Chair and CEO of Smile Train, “This model builds local capacity and long-term, scalable solutions to improving oral health for children around the world.”
This award-winning technology, which was featured at TEDMED and is used in more than 137 countries, provides doctors anywhere in the world with essential information about cleft anatomy and surgical techniques for cleft repair surgeries by using interactive animated graphics, clear written and oral instructions, and real-life, intra-operative surgical videos. Beyond training local surgeons on the ground, Smile Train is currently working on new technologies, such as a speech therapy mobile phone app, to help support children’s post-surgery therapy.
Dr. Asif Masood, a local Smile Train surgeon in India says, “Surgery is something that cannot be learned from books alone. The 3-dimensional simulator helps in understanding what has been described in our text books.”
As of March 2017, there were 2,865 registered VSS users in 137 countries — with India registered as the third highest number of sessions after the US and Brazil.
In addition to developing a VSS, Smile Train recently released a complementary 360° virtual reality video campaign, which allows doctors and donors to better understand the patient’s side to recovery. Viewers are taken into the world of two children, Vikas and Nisha from India, who receive life-changing cleft repair surgeries.
These new partnerships and developments between technology, philanthropy and the healthcare sector allows organizations to train hard-to-reach healthcare workers, to improve doctor’s bedside manner and to better prep doctors for post-operative therapy after the child returns home. These VR experiences also allow Western-based donors, who are geographically and emotionally distant from the patients’ lives, to better understand the change Smile Train is driving.