Rectal exams for men generally start at age 50 and then become an annual endurance. The exam is the first level of testing for prostate problems. The greatest concern is prostate cancer, although a benign enlarged prostate can cause urinary problems.
Doctors, nurses, and physician’s assistants are trained to do prostate exams and there’s the problem. According to Dr. Fernando Bello, from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London, “Internal examinations are really challenging to learn… and to teach. Because the examinations occur in the body, the trainer cannot see what the trainee is doing, and vice versa. But the results of these examinations can have major implications for patients; they are very important for early diagnosis of various conditions such as prostate cancer.”
Because of the importance of the exam and the difficulties in training and supervising, scientists at Imperial College London have developed a robotic rectum with prosthetic buttocks. Internal robotic arms and a silicon tube recreate the feel of giving a rectal exam. At the same time the device gives feedback on technique with a 3D representation of the anatomy displayed on a computer screen. The robotic arms can be set up to represent different scenarios so the test rectal environment can be changed.
The team at Imperial College is still developing the technology and gathering data from doctors about the proper trajectory and pressure to use. They collect the data by having doctors wear a pressure sensor under their glove while examining real patients. One goal is to build affordable versions for medical schools, either with the same robotic technology or perhaps with finger pressure sensors and 3D software with traditional plastic models.