Sensor for new doctors gives a helping hand in detecting cancer

Credit: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Experience is a big factor in how well doctors can detect lumps that signal cancer when carrying out breast examinations, but most trainees lack the experience to be able to identify possibly alarming abnormalities when conducting these exams. A new sensor recently made by academics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison could potentially assist new doctors in this regard. The team responsible for the invention is working applying for a patent with the assistance of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

According to Hongrui Jiang, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university: “This whole project is about facilitating the training of residents.”

The project is working toward creating small fingertip sensors that can measure the pressure and hand motions used by physicians when probing for lumps. New residents will be able to compare their own exams against standards established by experienced doctors and obtain feedback on whether or not they are being sufficiently thorough.

With the new device, doctors-in-training will be able to reference best practice cases when reviewing their own cases and see a comparison between them. They will also be able to ask for the opinion of senior staff on their progress and performance and see if they have adhered to standards. This is all enabled by what the development team hope will be a discrete and unobtrusive sensor fitted to the fingertips of the hand of the doctor conducting the examination, detecting movement and pressure.

It has been difficult for doctors to establish guidelines and best practice cases for breast exams. Other researchers at the university previously tried to develop a similar sensor but the state-of-the-art at the time in terms of sensor technology was not sufficiently advanced to detect the required level of detail. Dr. Carla Pugh (a professor of surgical education and industrial and systems engineering at the university) had been trying for a number of years to realize a similar device. The previously existing solutions were able to detect pressure in a direct way but not the motion in lateral and circular directions that is highly important in hospital settings. Pugh enlisted the input of Jiang to improve what they had achieved so far.

“They were using commercial products—but the sensors were not very good,” according to Jiang. “Commercial sensors have serious limitations. It was very hard; we couldn’t figure out a nice way to handle the problem until a year ago, when we had an ‘aha’ moment.”

The ‘aha’ moment that Jiang referred to was that more than one sensor was needed to detect the different degrees of movement and pressure necessary for such a device to be successful, and as such designed the new device to measure these factors in 3D using overlapping sensors. He and one of his students, Jayer Fernandez, used this conclusion to develop a device that way far ahead of what had previously existed. For this work Fernandez achieved high praise at the Sensors Conference in Autumn 2016, where he presented to the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) judges and left a lasting impression.

According to Fernandez: “I’ve never done an elevator pitch before, but it went well. People asked me a lot of interesting questions. I described why our sensor is more sensitive to the force range that we’re looking at and gives us a nice way to do the readout in different directions.”

Jiang said about the device: “There’s a real need to improve physician training. We didn’t realize there was such a clinical need. It’s a very challenging problem, but very interesting and very significant.”

The team is still working with Pugh and other researchers to make the device more user-friendly and tailored to the needs of doctors, including adding functionality to allow aggregation of readings from more than one device and making it more compact.

More information can be found at: University of Wisconsin-Madison.




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