Surgical Innovations Lab puts patient safety at the forefront

Gary Sutkin, M.D., has established the School of Medicine’s Surgical Innovations Laboratory.

At the UMKC School of Medicine’s Surgical Innovations Laboratory, Gary Sutkin, M.D., professor of surgery and associate dean for women’s health, is taking a different approach to research.

As director of the lab, Sutkin, who also serves as the Victor and Caroline Shutte Endowed Chair in Women’s Health, has gathered an interdisciplinary team to look at ways to make surgical procedures safer for patients.

Inside the “Surgilab” — his third-floor “think tank” —  one can find a pair of large bean bag chairs sitting in a corner on a colorful rug. A portion of one wall is filled with large-screen video monitors. A rectangular conference table in front of the wall is surrounded by different colored chairs. This is all by design, Sutkin explains.

“It’s all about creativity,” he said. “The chairs being different colors represent different ideas that people bring forth. It wasn’t just convenience. The people we work with come from different backgrounds.”

Gary Sutkin, M.D., leads an interdisciplinary team that is exploring ways to make surgical procedures safer for patients.

Biomedical engineers, mechanical engineers, and even a theater instructor, gathers to discuss surgical procedures and how the operating room team of nurses and technicians can more effectively work together. They do this through practitioners’ movements and non-verbal communications.

“We’re one big community here, trying to make surgery safer for patients,” Sutkin said. “We’re trying to make it safer by cutting down on errors and improving communication. The operating room is such a fast-paced, high-risk environment. You have all these people from different backgrounds trying to work together, all with the same goal to have an effective, safe surgery. But they have to communicate well to do that.”

Physicians learn to do better by talking about the mistakes that take place during surgical procedures. One of Sutkin’s projects involves interviewing a number of surgeons to get their perspectives on surgical errors and how to prevent them. It’s a topic that he says surgeons think about often and are quite open to talking about with colleagues.

“I’ve told my mistake stories over and over,” Sutkin said. “It’s only by putting them out in the open and talking about them that we can learn from them and fix our ways.”

The work of the Surgilab is supported by a grant from the University of Missouri Review Board and funding from Sutkin’s endowed chair appointment.

With his research assistant, Fizza Mahmud, and a cohort of interdisciplinary colleagues, Sutkin and company are also exploring the process involved in Midurethral Sling Surgery. The procedure is a minimally invasive approach to treating a common urinary problem of incontinence in women. But it also involves surgical risks.

During a work session, Sutkin grabs a handful of playdoh and begins to form a shape to help describe to the non-medical members of his team the female anatomy and how the surgical instruments are used during the procedure.

“Human error is a part of any high-risk industry,” Sutkin said. “Whether it’s aviation, the railway industry, or surgery, it’s going to happen. You’re never going to get it down to zero, but you’re always trying to make it lower and lower.”