Bournemouth University

Annual Review 2014

Award winning medical technology could improve training and reduce risk for patients

Award winning medical technology could improve training and reduce risk for patients

Meet the expert..

Dr Venky Dubey

Click here to view Venky’s staff profile page

The research

Over a thousand epidurals are administered every day in the UK, most commonly for pain relief during childbirth. Inserting an epidural needle into the spine, though, requires great skill and prolonged training. It can be challenging even for the most experienced anaesthetists. If the procedure is not performed accurately it can result in debilitating pain, extreme headache, nerve damage and in rare cases even death.

BU researchers are working on an innovative NHS project to develop a simulator that will improve training for this delicate procedure. The idea came from Poole Hospital’s Senior Consultant Anaesthetist Professor Michael Wee and draws on the expertise of BU’s medical robotics researcher Dr Venky Dubey.

Together with BU research student Dr Neil Vaughan, Professor Wee and Dr Dubey developed a prototype epidural simulator, which uses software to replicate the procedure. The devices combine ultrasound and MRI images to assist epiduralists in determining the position of the epidural needle. Unlike existing epidural training technology it incorporates patient’s weight, height and BMI.  Coupled with a physical mannequin, this is a realistic model for training. An accompanying training package helps users monitor their improvement.

The project has received international recognition, having been awarded the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Innovation Award in the Information Technology category, seeing off competition from more than 400 entries from 30 countries.

The team are now working with NHS Innovations South West Ltd., who develop and commercialise new innovative technology and train NHS Innovation Leaders. Their company mission is to enhance healthcare delivery.

More information is available at

The academic

Finding innovative solutions to engineering problems is my passion. When the proposal for the epidural simulator came from Poole Hospital, I could not contain my excitement.

I thought this was the project where I could channel my expertise in robotics, mechanism design, sensing and control, to address pertinent research questions.

My involvement with this project was not only to provide technical input but also to consolidate different ideas into a coherent research direction.

In this case there was just the right balance of interest, experience and collaboration with like-minded people that ticked the box and, of course, that’s all going into a project with direct benefits for patients.

Dr Venky Dubey, Robotics Engineer

The student

I received my PhD for my work in developing the prototype epidural simulator and it’s very rewarding to be titled ‘Doctor’!

It has been wonderful working with this team of researchers. Together we have successfully won world-class awards, published in high-impact journals and presented at prestigious international conferences.

A highlight for me was receiving the ICT Pioneers award in the ‘Transforming Society’ category, judged by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. I was also awarded a prestigious Scholarship from the Institute of Engineering and Technology.

Most importantly though, my satisfaction has come for being part of a team working to develop technologies and devices which could improve clinical training, reduce patient injuries, and ultimately save lives.

Neil Vaughan

Dr Neil Vaughan, PhD student

The impact

One of the most common problems after an epidural for labour is what is called a dural tap, where the epidural needle punctures the covering of the spinal cord and causes leakage of spinal fluid. This may cause a debilitating headache for the mother and prevent her from caring for and enjoying her newborn. There is a need to provide precise training in a delicate clinical procedure which has potentially devastating effects when things go wrong.

This prototype simulator allows epiduralists to practise on something that closely resembles the real person. If widely adopted this could reduce the learning curve, making epidurals more effective and potentially reducing the risk to patients. This may be translated into savings to the NHS in the form of a reduction in compensation claims.

The ultimate intention is to create a high fidelity epidural simulator with incorporated sound and vision true to the labour environment. This will increase the realistic experience of training, similar to that of a flight simulator.

I decided to team up with the BU School of Design, Engineering and Computing as they have the necessary expertise and skills in developing the epidural simulator.

Professor Michael Wee

Professor Michael Wee, Consultant Anaesthetist at Poole Hospital Trust


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