By Dr. Stephen Shrewsbury
Operations performed by robots? While the surgeon is thousands of miles away? Star Trek fiction – or tomorrow’s health care fact?
Yes, surgery really will soon be performed remotely over the Internet, with surgeons working thousands of miles away from the patients they are cutting.
And that is not all that is going to change as we enter the Golden Age of Medicine. Remote surgery is just one of many advances that is going to dramatically change how healthcare is delivered. explains Dr. Shrewsbury, formerly a family doctor working in the UK’s National Health Service but now a serial Chief Medical Officer to some of North America’s most pioneering biotech companies.
Remote surgery is fact
In 2001, the first remote operation, the so-called Lindbergh operation, was performed by Dr. Jacques Marescaux. From his New York office, he performed a cholecystectomy on a woman in Strasbourg, France. Like the first TranAtlantic flight by Charles Lindbergh, this pioneering telesurgery was hailed as a breakthrough. It used state of the art fiber optic technology to allow Dr. Marescaux to manipulate surgical instruments on a different continent, in a different time zone, all from the comfort of his office.
Since then, many companies have developed robotic equipment which can be operated by surgeons from outside the operating suite. The robots do not fatigue; need no bio-breaks; can move through greater ranges of motion than the human operator and can be programmed to hold a certain precise position for hours at a constant tension. In addition, a surgeon can potentially conduct an operation in Strasbourg, France, followed immediately by a second operation on a patient in Sydney, Australia. For surgeons highly specialized in a particular operation, this has obvious advantages – and for patients needing the most skillful surgeon in the world to perform a delicate operation, those advantages are welcome.
Big investment megabytes
The first telesurgery system, the Da Vinci Surgical System, is now commercially available but not cheap at $1 million, and requires Asynchronous Transfer Mode technology whereby high-speed voice, video and data transfer of up to 10 gigabits per second through public and private networks is essential to avoid any delay. Thus the surgeon in New York is seeing and responding to what is happening on the other side of the world in real time.
Telesurgery is already practiced in Canada where remote laparoscopic surgery, on patients in North Bay, has been conducted by Dr. Anvari based in Hamilton, Ontario. A study from Guy’s Hospital in London, England found that robotic surgery was more reliable at targeting kidney stones than traditional surgeons in trials on 304 dummy patients. As communication technology improves, the potential for telesurgery to be used in even more remote locations, that have no resident surgeons, or in difficult situations such as in battlefield surgery, become possible.
So get ready. In the not too distant future, as you go under anaesthetic, it might not be the surgeon’s face you see looming over you, but C-3PO!
About the Author: Dr. Stephen Shrewsbury spent 20 years practicing medicine in the UK, and the last 13 in North America where he has been Chief Medical Officer for several innovative biotech companies. His recently published book,"Defy Your DNA," can be found at: www.defyyourdnabook.com.