The Current

U.K. surgeon gives thumbs down to medical students' lack of dexterity

A prominent British surgeon says he's concerned that medical students don't have the same manual dexterity as their predecessors. Have we turned our backs on our hands?

Basic skills often learned in early childhood are getting lost, says Dr. Roger Kneebone

Have we turned our backs on our hands? U.K. surgeon Roger Kneebone says the students he teaches each year don't have the same dexterity as their predecessors. (Chanawit/Shutterstock)

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A U.K. doctor who trains surgeons is voicing concern over the lack of manual dexterity among medical students these days.

"It seems we can no longer rely on people having developed these ways of using their hands from early childhood, at home and at school," Dr. Roger Kneebone told The Current's guest host, Piya Chattopadhay.

The professor of surgical education at London's Imperial College said colleagues in various branches of medicine have made the same observation.

"We're seeing increasing numbers of people who no longer have that sort of basic language using their hands, in the way that — only five or ten years ago — people used to," he said.

In secondary schools in the U.K., many of the activities that taught people how to be skilled with their hands — woodwork, cooking, painting, performance art — are now optional in the central curriculum, Kneebone explained.

Dr. Kneebone says his medical students are not comfortable cutting or tying string because they don't have the practical experience using these skills. (Thanakrit Sathavo/Shutterstock)

The result is that basic skills like cutting and tying knots are not intuitive for most of Kneebone's medical students — yet it's an integral part of performing surgery.

It's not just dexterity, these skills inform an understanding of the world around us through the sense of touch, Kneebone ​told Chattopadhyay.

In surgery for instance, he explained surgeons always have to make judgments on the state of an organ or tissue, including whether they can be joined together or cut apart.

"It's not something that you learn once and apply it in the same way ever after —  you're constantly having to make these judgments in the moment."

To explore the way we use our hands and why dexterity is so hard to replicate, Chattopadhyay spoke to:

  • Vincent Duchaine, co-founder of Robotiq, a Canadian firm developing robotic grippers that mimic some hand functions. He's also an engineering professor at École de technologie supérieure in Montreal. 
  • Göran Lundborg, retired hand surgeon and professor emeritus of hand surgery at Lunde University in Sweden. He's also the author of The Hand and the Brain: From Lucy's Thumb to the Thought-controlled Robotic Hand. 
  • Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College, London.

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

Produced by John Chipman and Danielle Carr.


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