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OTC students work with surgical robot to expand skill sets

Surgical tech workers are in high demand, officials say

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An expansion of curriculum for the surgical technology program at Ozarks Technical Community College allowed students to recently receive their first exposure to a surgical robot that officials say is becoming more commonplace in local hospitals.

For the week of Nov. 27, surgical technology students got to interact with a da Vinci surgical system developed by Intuitive Surgical Inc. (Nasdaq: ISRG) that allows surgeons to perform robotic-assisted surgery. It lets doctors perform complex minimally invasive surgical procedures with precision and accuracy, said Angie Enlow, OTC’s surgical technology program director.

“It usually goes to hospitals for training or for medical doctors’ training,” she said, adding the surgical robot made its first-time appearance on campus at Lincoln Hall. “It doesn’t usually go to surgical tech programs, but this is something we have been working on for a while.”

She said the school’s ongoing conversations with Intuitive led to the robot connection.

In addition to the robot, several CoxHealth surgeons in areas such as trauma, gynecology and genitourinary came to speak to the students about how they interact with the robot in surgery.

Both OTC and health care officials say the technology’s use is becoming increasingly important for surgical technicians to have exposure. Enlow said prior to securing a week with the robot, students could only read about the technology in their textbooks. That would be followed by students starting clinical work and eventually finding themselves in a room with a surgical robot they’d never interacted with before. Surgical technologists assist physicians in the operating room.

“They are totally overwhelmed and have no idea what’s going on. It’s hard for people doing surgery to have to show them because there is a sterile, aseptic atmosphere that we’re having to watch over,” Enlow said.

She said the weeklong exposure allowed students to first work with the robot in a lab setting instead of a surgical procedure with a patient. For example, they learned about attaching and removing instruments from the robot and how to dock it next to the patient.

“We are not paying one penny,” Enlow said of the robot access provided by Intuitive and guest speakers. “All the people that are coming in are doing it for free. It’s a super supportive group.”

While an initial contact with CoxHealth led to additional staff connections with the health system, she said future involvement with Mercy or other health care providers in the lab regarding the surgical robot would be welcome.

The da Vinci system costs roughly $2 million, according to OTC officials. Between CoxHealth and Mercy, 10 surgical robots are in use in local operating rooms, officials with the health systems say.

In demand
Accessing the robot was timed with expansion of lab space at Lincoln Hall. The school building, the historic home of Springfield’s former African American high school, received over $400,000 this year in interior remodeling and $1.5 million to expand its practical nursing and surgical technology labs. A $1.5 million grant in congressionally directed funding from the Health Resources and Services Administration provided most of the project’s funding, said OTC spokesperson Mark Miller, adding the remaining $400,000 was funded by the college.

Enlow said the surgical technology changes doubled the size of the program’s laboratory facilities to roughly 1,260 square feet, allowing for an increase to its student capacity by 30%. She said both CoxHealth and Mercy are excited about the lab expansion, which could allow for more surgical technician hires. The Missouri Hospital Association states that the region has 40 vacancies in the position annually.

“They’d love for this program to be twice as big. They can both take on 25 students this year as new employees,” Enlow said of CoxHealth and Mercy, noting all the program’s graduates could immediately find health care jobs. “I have facilities reaching out to me, even from St. Louis and Kansas City, as well as more local hospitals, saying, ‘Do you have graduates? We have openings.’”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said overall employment of surgical assistants and technologists is projected to grow 5% from 2022 to 2032, faster than the average for all occupations. The median annual wage in the U.S. for surgical technologists was $55,960 in 2022, according to BLS data.

Mercy Springfield Communities spokesperson Ettie Berneking said the health system locally has over 10 openings for the position – a near identical number shared by CoxHealth officials. Mercy hires more than 20 surgical technicians per year, she said, adding the jobs comprise around half of the roughly 400 employees in its local operating rooms.

“We would hire more if available,” she said via email.

The OTC program ran close to its 25-student capacity prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but dropped to around 10 in 2020. The current cohort has 14 students – a number Enlow said was impacted by the Lincoln Hall remodeling and expansion project. She’s optimistic with the work complete the enrollment will reach at least 25 next year. A second cohort could be added based on applicant interest, she said.

Expanding skills
Dr. Molly Greenwade, a gynecologic oncologist with CoxHealth who works out of the Hulston Cancer Center, said surgical technicians are very important in health care. That importance is likely to increase as surgeons begin utilizing surgical robots in greater numbers, she said.

“We talk about it at meetings a lot. A lot of time, energy and training is placed on the new surgical techs and rotating them through the robot rooms so that people can become more comfortable using the robot and assisting on it,” she said.

Greenwade was among those scheduled to talk with OTC students Dec. 1 about her experience with robotic technology. Since starting at CoxHealth in April 2021, Greenwade said she’s performed 350 surgeries that utilized a robot, adding CoxHealth owns six of them.

“These procedures are becoming much more common, and the robot has really allowed us to do tough surgeries in a minimally invasive way,” she said, adding she received training on surgical robots at Barnes-Jewish Hospital at Washington University in St. Louis.

Aside from educating the OTC students about her extensive experience working with the robot, Greenwade said her presentation also was to alleviate fears they may have about it.

“Automatically, there’s some anxiety associated with going to a robot room. It’s new technology and there’s a lot of moving parts,” she said. “Specialties are now moving more toward robotic surgery because we can do so much more with it.”

While the da Vinci robot only had a brief stay at OTC, Enlow is hopeful it won’t be the last.

“This is a one-week thing, but the goal is we’d like to make this an annual event, so that each class can have this training,” she said. “So far, it is looking and feeling very successful."

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