Du Pisanie’s Research Comes to Life

A new student-produced thyroid model is now part of the UNC School of Medicine’s simulation education.

Du Pisanie’s Research Comes to Life click to enlarge Lourens Du Pisanie (second from right) and John Cooper discuss their research at Student Research Day (Photo by Brian Strickland)
Du Pisanie’s Research Comes to Life click to enlarge Cooper and Du Pisanie with their simulation model

By Jamie Williams, jamie.williams@unchealth.unc.edu

As a kid tinkering with electronics in his family’s garage, Lourens Du Pisanie never envisioned building a medical simulation model, let alone one he might patent and have classmates use to test their skills. All of this happened thanks to his new thyroid simulation model.

Du Pisanie came to the work nearly by happenstance. He knew he wanted to spend the summer of 2015 on a research project in Chapel Hill but wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to focus on. Looking online for potential projects and mentors, Du Pisanie was intrigued by the work of Richard Feins, MD, professor of surgery. His original project was to create a simulation model that could teach surgical residents to perform a gastroesophageal anastomosis after the removal of esophageal cancers. He finished that project with time to spare.

“The assignment came in and I bought the parts, put it together, and thankfully, it seems to have worked,” Du Pisanie said.

In his faint accent, Du Pisanie explained that his mechanical inclination can be traced back to a childhood spent watching and working with his father on projects in garages on three continents. Born in South Africa, Du Pisanie and his family moved to Australia when he was five. They spent ten years there, before moving to Wilmington, NC, where Du Pisanie attended high school.

“I’ve spent so much time messing around with electronics that I had a pretty good idea what I needed to do,” he said.

After the success of his initial project, Feins came to Du Pisanie and said that he heard the clinical simulation department at the School of Medicine needed a simulator to help teach students to perform common thyroid exams. Du Pisanie got to work.

The device allows for silicone thyroids with different conditions and disease states to be placed inside. It has lights that help guide where students should place their fingers when conducting the exam. Du Pisanie credits his classmate and friend John Cooper with helping him build the simulator and for coming up with the idea to stretch silicone skin across it to make it feel more lifelike.

Du Pisanie and Cooper presented their simulator to Michael Gilchrist, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine, and Thomas Koonce, MD, MPH, assistant professor of family medicine. Gilchrist and Koonce are co-course directors for the Patient Centered Care block of UNC School of Medicine students’ training.

“There was definitely lots of interest on our end,” Gilchrist said. “We had been looking to weave more simulation training into the course since we’ve found that it promotes active and engaged learning, and, most importantly, students seem to really enjoy it.”

Gilchrist and Koonce confirmed that the model was accurate and could provide a valuable simulation for students learning to perform thyroid exams. So, they tested it out.

 As part of their endocrine exams, students in the Patient Centered Care course are tested on their ability to correctly perform a thyroid exam. Of the 180 students in the course, 33 conducted their exam on Du Pisanie’s model, while the rest used standardized patients.

“We found that students who practiced on the model and on standardized patients both examined the thyroid with equal accuracy,” Du Pisanie said.

The development of such an accurate simulation has drawn the attention of faculty members from the School of Medicine and elsewhere. At the 2015 Student Research Day, Du Pisanie and Cooper were awarded a Harold C. Pillsbury Student Research Award. On Feb. 20, Du Pisanie and Cooper will present their work to physicians and medical educators from across the region at the Southern Society of General Internal Medicine’s annual conference in Atlanta.

“It says so much about UNC that we will be represented at this regional conference by outstanding students with such great interest in medical education, who produced a product with such widespread application,” Gilchrist said.

Du Pisanie admits he hasn’t done any speaking on this scale but says he draws confidence from the positive response his research has received.

“I’m definitely a little nervous, but I know the research is sound and I feel prepared to answer any questions that might come my way,” he said.

With the help of his faculty mentor Feins, Du Pisanie has also obtained a patent for the simulator through UNC.

The success of the project has helped solidify Du Pisanie’s interest in simulation education. He will spend his upcoming third year of medical school in rotations in Greensboro and Chapel Hill, so he may struggle to find time to build more models, but he said he definitely plans to incorporate simulation training and education into his residency experience.

He also said he’s been “amazed” by the support he’s received from faculty members who have encouraged him to take this work from its summer project origins, through the patent application process, and now on the road to show it off to other physicians and educators.

“If you have an idea, there are so many people here who are willing to jump in and help you,” Du Pisanie said. “It’s one of the greatest things about UNC.”

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