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Staff at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh who have been using the new Versius robotic arm technology

Robot surgeons lend NHS a helping hand

Image credit: NHS Lothian/PA Wire

Next-generation surgical robots, hailed by UK doctors as ‘a leap in surgical precision’, have performed operations at two NHS hospitals.

Western General Hospital in Edinburgh was first to use the new robotic arm technology in Europe, followed by Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Trust in Buckinghamshire.

The robot, called Versius, is designed to perform keyhole surgery, also known as minimal invasive surgery or laparoscopy – a complicated procedure that involves surgeons operating on patients through a small incision made on the body.

Built by Cambridge-based start-up CMR Surgical, Versius mimics a human arm, working in a similar way to a computer games console, with the ability to move and rotate its 'wrists' in a unique fashion.

The robot has multiple arms that are controlled by surgeons using a remote-control device connected to a screen in the operating theatre. The screen gives doctors a precise view of their movements by displaying the part of the body they are operating on.

GRAPHIC CONTENT: Milton Keynes NHS Hospital undated handout photo of staff using the new Versius robotic arm technology during a surgery

Surgeons have said the technology will help reduce patient recovery times and pain

Image credit: CMR Surgical/PA

CMR Surgical said the development could cut the need for one additional doctor during operations, freeing up stretched NHS staff to carry out care elsewhere. It could also reduce patient recovery times and pain and will allow surgeons to perform for longer periods due to reduced fatigue, as the robot can be operated sitting down.

“It is a leap forward in surgical precision meaning patients recover faster and ultimately get home sooner," said Doug Speake, a consultant colorectal surgeon at NHS Lothian. “It is better for the patients and it is actually better for us.”

NHS Lothian, which provides healthcare services in the city of Edinburgh and East Lothian, Mid Lothian and West Lothian areas in Scotland, has already treated around 30 patients using the technology since November last year.

Lord Prior, NHS England chair, said: “It’s fantastic that the NHS is the first in Europe to use the next generation of surgical robots and yet another example of how the NHS is teaming up with Britain’s excellent engineering sector to deliver world-class care.”

Meanwhile, CMR Surgical said the two NHS sites could be used to carry out as many as 700 minimal access surgeries each year. The company’s chief medical officer, Mark Slack, said it is already in talks with other NHS trusts about deploying the tool more widely. “We will have more than a handful on the NHS by the end of the year,” he stated.

Versius features three or four independent arms, as well as 3D visualisation and instrument controls, which allow the surgeon to mimic their own human movement, making it less strenuous on them. Its portability also means it can be transported between hospitals within an NHS trust.

Professor Alastair Campbell, who previously worked at the University of Edinburgh, became one of the first patients in Europe to undergo a ‘re-section’ procedure with Versius during an operation in November.

The 81-year-old theologian and bioethicist had the operation in the Western General Hospital after medical investigations identified a polyp, which could have been a sign of a very early stage of colon cancer. Within weeks, Campbell went on to have a section of his colon removed and re-joined as part of a procedure carried out using the Versius robot.

MK NHS Hospital photo of staff using the new Versius robotic arm technology during a surgery

Surgeons have said that Versius lets them use their instruments more precisely

Image credit: Milton Keynes NHS Hospital/PA Wire

“Robotic assistance lies at the heart of future surgical techniques, and has great potential to enable more patients to benefit from 'keyhole' surgery with faster recovery times,” said Richard Kerr, from the Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS).

However, he added: “There is a risk that the NHS is rushing ahead with robotics without a clear plan for ensuring equity of access, and quality training for the clinical teams charged with using them.

“A national strategy for rolling out robotics, ensuring it's clear where robots are, how they are being used, and progress against training requirements, was a key recommendation of our Commission on the Future of Surgery. It is now becoming urgent.

“While patients and professionals alike will welcome the advances being made at Milton Keynes, we want to see the Department for Health take a more hands-on approach, ensuring that amazing technology like this is available all around the country.”

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