how do medical students practice surgery? (Silicon Pads, Pigs Feet & More)

Medical students can practice surgery with their own surgical training kits and their own ingenuity. Common things we use to master particular techniques include specially designed silicon mats or pads, an array of fruits and even pigs feet. Before eventually moving on to performing smaller techniques, under supervision, in the operating rooms on surgery rotations.

Surgeons, like all specialised doctors, first start out as medical students. In the early years of medical school, many start out with no idea of what kind of doctor they want to become. Over time, and increased exposure to things like cadaver dissections and the like, students may begin to develop the idea of becoming surgeons. And dream of one day operating on humans.

How we practice and get a taste of what’s required for the job beforehand? We research techniques, pick up a basic surgery kit and find something as close to human flesh to fiddle with first.

Here’s the kit I practice with if you’re interested. It’s neat, portable and lightweight.

How to Improve Surgical Skills

The main mantra those inside medicine hear all the time is; “see one, do one, teach one”. At its essence? This is exactly how people (med students included) improve their surgical skills.

The first step involves seeking out instruction. Traditionally, as you’ll see reading how the great surgeons learn (check out David Nott’s War Surgeon on my recommendation page), most of this occurred through books. Now it happens more through video.

The YouTube channel MDprospect, for example, is a great place to start. Here is the first video in a four part series on basic surgical techniques for medical students.

This series also highlights the main areas to get started on as someone interested in picking up the ropes; suturing and knot-tying.

Before you get started here though it’s also a good idea to familiarise yourself with the common surgical tools first. That way you’ll know exactly which of the instruments books or videos like this are referencing. Important if you’re looking to progress fast.

This video from Surgical Tech explains what these major instruments are. As well as when they’re likely to be used.

Aside from these starting points the next best way to improve is to practice. Follow these courses and their recommendations. And practice with your own set of instruments on objects that are easily accessible and ethically sound.

A little bit of practice each week is sufficient starting out. Unless you’re on a surgical rotation or very keen on the specialism.

How to Improve Suturing Skills

The first time I ever tried suturing was actually on a live patient under the supervision of a orthopaedic surgeon (specialising in hands) in the UK. As the patient was under general anaesthetic – having undergone open carpal tunnel surgery – they didn’t have to put up with my hopeless pacing. Not to mention my nervous trembling!

Improving your suturing is one of the more fundamental ways to improve your general surgical skills and get good fast. Closing a wound is something all surgeons must be skilled at. So taking the time to master it while in med school can really be of benefit. Especially as it’s easy to practice too.

The best way to learn is by following instructional video guides. Buck Parker has a good series showing just this. Here’s the first in the series which drives home the main points; forceps finger placement, hand positioning, action etc.

Notice how he advocates using your own suture kit, thread and practice silicon pad. You can pick each of these up on Amazon quite inexpensively. Here’s a link to the set I personally own that’s pretty much identical to that used in the video.

Personally, I feel silicon pads are the best option of all on this list. They’re non-messy, maintain their shape and mimic the look and feel of skin pretty well.

This is more than enough to get any med student started.

How to Practice Surgery Skills on Fruit

Soft fruits like bananas and oranges are surprisingly good objects to practice suturing and knot-tying with. They’re also inexpensive too. Meaning you can practice with confidence and not fear the mess-ups!

Here’s a video showing you how can you go about doing this after making a couple of incisions on an orange. Dr Chris also explains the purpose of suturing in wound repair too. Simulating as if he’s working on a living, breathing patient!

Notice how Dr Chris gives lots of practical surgical tips here? This video also explains knot-tying techniques like stick tying too. It’s well worth watching all 20 minutes plus of this video.

Likewise, here’s a shorter video on how it can work on a banana.

The purpose of using fruits is that they are tough but pliable enough to take a needle and a thread while enabling you to practice correct hand placement, wrist rotation and instrument use etc.

A great alternative to the silicon suture practice pads mentioned before.

Where to Buy Pigs Feet for Suturing

Pigs feet can be picked up at local butchers or supermarket counters and also make for great surgical training apparatus. Unlike fruits and practice pads, they’re a bit closer to real life surgery. Being an actual anatomical feature of something that was once very much alive.

Using them to practice obviously has a couple of downsides though. First they’re more expensive than a piece of fruit. Second, depending where you stand ethically, they could be argued to be quite unnecessary given the poor pig involved (although obviously they weren’t slaughtered for this purpose).

There’s also the issue of the smell once you’re done practicing.

Anyway, to understand more on what I’m talking about here’s a video showing how this can work.

See how the suturing technique explained by the professor here is basically the same as those in the instructional videos before. The basic process is the same; give or take a couple of personal flourishes.


Practising surgery techniques doesn’t need to be complicated. You can start at any stage of your education. All you need is a needle, holder, forceps and thread. As well as something to cut and suture that’s not a real patient.

Some of the suggestions above? Perfect in that regard.